Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 2)

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

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

The blurb on the back of this edition of Portnoy’s Complaint proclaims thus: “Portnoy’s Complaint must surely be the funniest book about sex ever written”. It was released to a storm of controversy, the pearl-clutchers taking issue with his explicit descriptions of sex and masturbation using various props (including, believe it or not, a piece of liver that the protagonist’s mother later cooked and served for dinner). All of this is to say that Portnoy’s Complaint sounded very, very promising to me. 😉

This is Philip Roth’s trademark novel, the “humorous monologue of a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, focusing on themes of sexual desire and frustration, full to the brim with comedic prose and self-conscious literariness. I actually started reading it the very same week that Philip Roth died, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. Portnoy’s Complaint turned Roth into a literary celebrity of sorts, and he went on to win pretty much every major award there is. I actually read a New York Times article in the weeks following his death that described how he would wait by the phone before each Nobel announcement, waiting on the call to say he’d finally won… and his devastation every time the phone didn’t ring. It was an odd combination of endearing and heartbreaking.

His literary brilliance and desperation for critical acclaim aside, I’m not sure Roth was all that endearing as a person. I read, for instance, that his progress in writing Portnoy’s Complaint was very slow – he claimed to be suffering from writer’s block, which he attributed to his ex-wife and the “unpleasant notion” that any royalties earned from the novel would have to be shared with her. As if that weren’t gross enough, she was killed in a car accident in 1968, and Roth’s writer’s block magically lifted. Immediately after the funeral, he made a beeline for a writer’s retreat, and promptly completed the manuscript. Ew. That story makes me want to shake him and shout “STOP BLAMING WOMEN FOR YOUR BULLSHIT!”… but I digress.


Portnoy’s Complaint, the very one that gave the book its title, Roth defines as “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”. Surely, we can all relate 😉 The book is presented as a monologue as told to a psychiatrist, and I think it was very clever on Roth’s part to position it that way. Had it read as a simple conversation with a generic “reader”, or a diary entry or some such nonsense, Portnoy’s pontificating would have been much harder to stomach. In Roth’s own words, the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by “the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation” which would “permit [him] to bring into [his] fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that […] in another fictional environment would have struck [him] as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene.” So, yeah. The dude knew what he was doing.

The blurb promises, as I mentioned, a comedy about sex – and yes, there is a lot of wanking (which is, in itself, very funny), but mostly Portnoy’s Complaint is about the narrator’s parents and growing up Jewish in mid-20th century America. The monologue darts back and forth through the various stages of his life, describing scenes and experiences that all relate back to his “complaint” (as it were): his inability to let loose and properly enjoy sex, no matter how creative and, erm, kinky he gets. But really, the thrust of his problem is that his mother did a real number on him, and the Jews have had a rough trot in general. I guess there’s probably a greater point in that, about how we experience our problems and what we think are our problems aren’t our real problems, or something… but I’m not here to dissect all that. Honestly, I read Portnoy’s Complaint for the lols, and Roth has plenty of those to offer.



(And the ending is so good! I’d imagine there are a lot of readers who have rolled their eyes and groaned, but I say: boo to them! It effectively turns the whole book into the set-up for a joke, the final words being the punchline. And if that doesn’t convince you to pick up Portnoy’s Complaint and give it a go, I don’t know what will!)

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, given the above, that Portnoy’s Complaint has a glorious history of being banned and challenged across the reading world. In 1969, it was declared a “prohibited import” in Australia. Penguin Books circumvented the ban by having copies printed in Sydney, and storing them in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws. Attempts to prosecute the publishers for this literary subterfuge were successful in some states, but not in others. Eventually, in 1971, Roth’s work was removed from the federal banned content list, but not before “the Portnoy matter” (as it was known) became a watershed in Australian censorship law. It marks the last occasion on which the censorship of a literary publication came before the courts.

My tl;dr summary of Portnoy’s Complaint: a repressed Jewish guy whacks his psychiatrist over the head (repeatedly!) with his Oedipal complex. It’s funny, engaging, and charming – perhaps a little too dirty for some folks, but that’s how I like ’em. Reading Portnoy’s Complaint is like eating apple pie and ice cream for dinner: you could make an argument that there’s some nutritional value in doing it, but ultimately it’s just indulgent and fun for grown-ups.


My favourite Amazon reviews of Portnoy’s Complaint:

  • “I don’t know why I find this surprising given the title of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but there sure is a lot more complaining in this book than I’m used to reading. Also, I guess bagging on one’s family and coming up with 200 euphemisms for masturbation was revolutionary in 1967, but 40 years on and it’s beyond “quaint”. Perhaps our present day society has caught up with and surpassed this level of “lurid?” Regardless, I couldn’t finish it.” – Warren Ernst
  • “great if you like Roth” – jane
  • “Ugh. I don’t get why people like this. Funny, sure, but it reads like a more scatological version of a Woody Allen movie.” – JessiPlaysJazz
  • “I think I can see what the author was trying to tell, but as a gay man I found all the detailed descriptions of hetero sex to be off-putting.” – T. Dreiling
  • “If you like books that are just about masturbation, this is for you.” – J.F. -Lackey
  • “After hearing a lot of good reviews of the book ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ I checked out the internet and fount the book for sale on ‘Amazon’.
    Whilst I wouldn’t rate the book itself as highly as others I was very happy with the transaction.” – Flexi

 

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Listen up, folks, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: If you’re going to read Little Women for the very first time, you need to find an edition – like this one, from Penguin Classics – with a decent introduction to the text. I know not everyone reads the introduction first, but I do, and if I hadn’t in this case, I would have completely missed the point. I was already pretty familiar with the story, because I loved the Winona Ryder film adaptation as a kid, but as far as literary critique goes I would have been completely adrift without a better understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s background and her motivations behind writing Little Women. (Of course, if an edition with a decent introduction isn’t forthcoming, you could always just read this review before you get started…)

Little Women was first published in 1868, and has historically been dismissed as moralising, sentimental guff. It’s “for girls”, you know? It’s only recently that Alcott’s magnum opus has been considered a valued component of the American literary canon. To fully appreciate the genius of this book, you really need to understand Alcott’s politics and the context in which the book was published. And, in addition to finding a copy with an introduction that breaks it down for you, I would strongly recommend finding a copy of the original text; there was a later edition, published in 1880, that smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges and, in so doing, refined a lot of the language and character descriptions to make them seem more “genteel”. Virtually all readers nowadays pick up the 1880 edition without realising what they’re missing out on – don’t be one of them!

So, onto all this background knowledge I keep telling you that you need: Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a “moral” book for young girls, with “wide appeal”. The story she came up with follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they transition into womanhood. Alcott herself was the second of four daughters, and – believe it or not – the similarities between her and Jo March don’t end there, so it’s pretty clear where she drew her inspiration. In fact, the story was so autobiographical that fans would write letters addressed to “Miss March”, and Alcott – being the good sport she was – would respond without correcting them. The first book was such a huge commercial success that readers (and Alcott’s publishers) immediately began clamouring for a sequel, so Alcott pumped out the follow-up “Good Wives” (though, it must be said, she was not a fan of that title, it was chosen by the publishers and she had no say at all). The two volumes are now sold together as a single edition, bearing the name Little Women.

Now, even though she seems like a good little woman herself, giving the publishers exactly what they wanted, Alcott is on record as having said that she would have much preferred to keep working on her own collection of short stories, which was very different in nature to the book for which she is most famous. So, why didn’t she? Well… she was hard up for cash. She wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” she said, but she hated writing it and referred to the process as “plodding away”.

She sought to address three major themes – domesticity, work, and true love – through this story of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott also effectively created the archetype of the “all-American girl”, embodying its different aspects in each of the March sisters: there’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic. The publishers wanted a story about good girls being good, but Alcott’s true message underlying the story is a little different: she’s clearly saying that virtue should be valued over wealth, and that women can overcome the constraints upon their gender through hard work and piety.

Yep, that’s right: Alcott was a feminist, and Little Women – despite its prima facie old-school values, and its controversial ending – is a deeply feminist novel. At the time of its publication, there were almost no models of non-traditional womanhood in popular media for young girls. So, Alcott took it upon herself to pitch many ideas of social change and progressive politics against the familiar backdrop of domestic life. Little Women paints a very familiar picture of the lives of girls in 19th century America, but it also legitimises their aspirations to grow beyond what is “expected” of them. So, three cheers for Alcott – way the fuck ahead of her time!

She gave the March sisters adventurous plots and storylines that had traditionally been coded as male. She wanted to normalise the ambition of women, and showcase alternatives to existing gender roles (which, at the time, were more restrictive than a damn corset). In particular, she addressed the idea that spinsters were “fringe” members of society, without power or influence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spinsters and unmarried women are actually strong, multi-dimensional characters, the true power brokers of the New England world that she created. Alcott shat all over the idea that you needed a husband and a family to be a “good” woman, and she did so from a great fucking height.


Now, everyone who’s read the book is currently screaming at me: “But Alcott ‘saved’ Jo in the end by marrying her off! That’s not feminist!”. To that, I say that the way in which Alcott did it was so clever and subversive, I don’t blame you for missing it on the first take. Alcott did, indeed, “marry off” her heroine… but not to the dashing, Prince Charming (Laurie), who had begged for her hand time and time again. Nope! Jo instead marries the much older (and poorer!) Professor Friederich Bhaer, a far less romantic ending and one that subverted the expectations of all the young readers who had, until then, never read a love story that didn’t involve a fairytale ending. Fuck yes, Alcott – fuck yes! People who criticise this ending don’t seem to understand the precarious position in which the author found herself. She was straddling the demands of her moneybags publishers – not to mention her very pious and conservative father – as well as her own determination to write a story that upheld her own feminist values. You can’t put a 20th century feminist head on a 19th century working woman’s shoulders, and I say she did a damn good job with what she had.

“For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord”, kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others, Little Women itself stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom.”

The book is full of sneaky little feminist asides. Of course, there are plenty of characters that represent the social status-quo, in keeping with the morals of the time, but the fact that Alcott managed to include her own agenda at all feels rebellious and awesome. In real life, Alcott was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement (yay!), and also the temperance movement (boo!), so she practiced what she preached, no matter what her Daddy said. If you need any more proof that she was fighting the good fight, the wonderful introduction to my Penguin Classics edition cites her influence on some of the founding mothers of feminism as we know it today: Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.


So, all told, I’m really glad I read the introduction and learned all of this before I started reading the book – otherwise, I could well have fallen into the trap of disregarding Little Women as fluff. As it was, I knew exactly what to look for in the story, and I found it really interesting and enjoyable. Little Women is basically the original YA novel – sure, it can be a bit saccharine and trite at times, but no more so than any other work published around the same time, and when you look closely there are some really valuable lessons hidden away there.

That said, even though I’m calling this a Recommended read(!), I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers. It’s much better suited to older readers, who have more developed critical thinking skills and can truly appreciate the masterful way that this simple story, about a very loving tight-knit group of sisters, makes some very important points about the role of women in society… points that we could do well to re-visit often.

Tl;dr? Make sure you look beneath the surface of Little Women, because that’s where you’ll find Alcott’s fighting feminist spirit. Onwards, ladies!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

  • “PLEASE NOTE THAT I DID NOT ORDER THIS ITEM” – SUE
  • “I would have given it five stars if the last few chapters hadn’t been some what disappointing. The majority of the book brought me immense pleasure and pain. Enjoy. It is worthwhile. Especially if you love Jesus.” – Blodwyn
  • “It was dumb. The women acted like 5 year olds more than half of the time and the mother who stressed the importance of resources, decided to give away food. Genius.” – Matthew
  • “If you are looking for a 400+ page children’s book narrated bu an unenthusiastic female robot… LOOK NO FURTHER… YOU HAVE FOUND IT!!!!” – Amazon Customer

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. As if that weren’t enough, she refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations! She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be treated kindly by the handful of reviewers she thought might look it over. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood. Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I haven’t felt this much adoration for a wise old owl character since Dumbledore. I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!


Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.



So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds). Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!


Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press. Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

 

The Golden Bowl – Henry James

Here it is, folks: the only time that I will review two books from The List by the same author, back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five… turns out, it wasn’t just a quirk of his storytelling exclusive to The Turn of the Screw. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.


A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She convinces him to marry her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte sure enough it it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, what a cuck!). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James seems to be the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


I ended up having to look up chapter summaries online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems)… but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on The List because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

Learn from my mistake: book recommendations from friends aren’t always the gold you’d hope they’d be! Check out the five mistakes you probably make when you’re picking your next read here.

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

Still shaking your head in disbelief picturing Kerouac hunched over his typewriter with that huge scroll? Check out my list of the most bizarre writing methods of successful authors here.

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

The best part about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project is the ample opportunity for rapid gear-shifts. In this case, I went from classic children’s fantasy to a 21st century assassin’s memoir, in the form of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.

This copy was proudly borrowed from the library of my mate Drew, which I guess makes him a Keeping Up With The Penguins sponsor of sorts. Top bloke!

So, let’s get the obvious stuff out the way: the book’s full title is “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”. Kyle, the primary author, was a former United States Navy SEAL. His two (two!) ghostwriters list this book as the shiniest jewel in their career crowns, according to their author websites. I suppose the stats back them up on that; American Sniper was published in 2012 and spent 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, followed by the release of a film adaptation (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper) two years later. Them’s some solid signs of success.

What’s the draw? Well, American Sniper tells the story of Kyle’s Texas upbringing, SEAL training, and a decade’s worth of tours in Iraq. During that time, he became “the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history”, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 255 people (160 of which have been “confirmed by the Pentagon”, whatever that means).

Aaaand I think I have to end my “objective” overview right about here, because American Sniper is fucking ugly. In so many ways.

From the opening pages, you can just feel Kyle’s militarised boner pressing against your upper thigh. He’s going to be slobbering in your ear all night about how white men with big guns saved the day. Welcome to your spot in the American Imperialism Circle Jerk.


Lest you think I’m overstating it: by page 4, Kyle is passing moral judgments on the “worth” of Iraqi lives versus American ones. Oh, but he doesn’t call them Iraqis – they are the “bad guys”. They are also “pure evil”, and “savages” (like it’s the 18th century and the generals are handing out a few smallpox blankets to the locals). He also calls them “motherfuckers”, and “whackadoos”. He “wishes he’d killed more of them”. I use all of these inverted commas to emphasise that these are the actual words he used to describe the human beings that he killed. Pro tip: don’t try taking a drink every time he says “bad guys”. It won’t make the writing any better, and you’ll pass out long before you finish the book, so you’ll just have to start again the next morning (with a hangover).

He also calls the Iraqis “targets” now and then, like it’s a bad ’80s action movie. The lack of self-awareness, not to mention basic critical thinking skills, is truly astonishing. Catch-22 it ain’t. Kyle will, on the one hand, try to impress upon the reader that the war in which he was a willing (eager) participant was Absolutely Necessary, because the “bad guys” were coming to kill Americans. Why or how the “bad guys” were going to do that he doesn’t make clear, but regardless he is Absolutely Sure it is the case. As such, he sees no problem in taking out these “targets”, and talking about the joy of it ad nauseam. On the other hand, Kyle seems to lack the mental capacity to attribute those same feelings – fear of strange invaders coming to kill you, doing everything you can to stop them in their tracks – to the Iraqis. He storms and raids their homes, shoots them in the streets, ignores and denigrates the Iraqis who would fight alongside him… and doesn’t understand at all why that might piss them off. After all, he’s forgotten that they’re humans. They’re “targets”. They’re “bad guys”.

If you can get past his dehumanisation of the 25 million people living in Iraq before 2003 (you’re a better person than I am), you’ll still have plenty of other shitty stuff to contend with. His false modesty is the worst. The whole book reads something like: So many people want me to tell my story, and I don’t know why! I’m just an average Joe! Also I really love killing people, I’ve killed lots and lots of people, more than anyone else, did I tell you? I’m really good at it. I’ve basically saved the world from evil savages. But I’m just a guy doing his job, and I can’t believe that sooooo many people want me to write a book… Appeals to group authority abound. I lost count of the number of times he did that before I was 100 pages in: “people” wanted him to write a book, “people” ask him all the time how many bad guys he killed, “people” ask him every day about his favourite gun… ugh.

It’s not just that the writing is exceedingly average (which, of course, it is). Kyle is just awful: literally him, his personality and his way of being in the world. At best, he’s just dull and clichéd. He fancies himself a real-life G.I. Joe. He got his first “real” rifle at age seven, and he talks about guns more often (and more lovingly) than he does his wife. He opines at one point, without a hint of irony, that the British soldiers “speak English funny”. The thrust of every anecdote is that he is a hero, anyone outranking him is an idiot, and the Iraqis are dispensable savages. Rinse and repeat. If you told me that American Sniper wasn’t, in fact, a memoir, but instead the wish-fulfillment first novel of a socially-awkward young white man who spends 100 hours a week playing first-person shooter video games, I’d believe you, without question.




The bit that truly turned my stomach – the point at which Kyle became completely irredeemable in my eyes – was on page 161. He tells the most horrifying story of stealing a child’s video game from the house that he and his team raided and occupied. He talked about it so glibly, without a hint of remorse or regret – indeed, joking about the circumstance and inviting the reader to laugh along with him – that it brought me to tears. He literally stole from the child of a family that he turned out onto the street in a war zone. He turned a crib from that house into a sniper bed; he used it for eight hours, then discarded it, and moved on to the next raid.

He and his team did this a lot, according to Kyle. They would take over entire apartment buildings (“stinking slums”, he called them), give any civilian family they found $300, and tell them to fuck off and live somewhere else. All so they could use a single room as a sniper hole, for less than a day. He talks about it all with such immense pride, it’s fucking disgusting.

“I don’t shoot people with Korans – I’d like to, but I don’t.” – an actual quote from American Sniper

There were several controversies about the book following publication. Kyle described beating a man in the first edition, and the victim brought a lawsuit alleging defamation and unjust enrichment. Then there was an official investigation into Kyle’s claim that all of the book proceeds went to veterans’ charities (in fact, 2% went to charities, while Kyle’s family received $3 million). There were also squabbles over Kyle’s alleged embellishment of his military record and honours (seriously, by this point, who cares? seems to be the least of his crimes).

I make a point of not Googling books before I read them, so it was only after I’d finished American Sniper that I learned about Kyle’s death. He was shot by another (mentally ill) veteran on a rehabilitation sojourn to a shooting range. It’s a tragic story, but it really doesn’t change my opinion, or this review, at all – the book must be judged by its own merit (or lack thereof) after all. It might be callous to say, but Kyle lived by the sword and he sure as shit died by it. I can’t say I was surprised.

So, is Kyle’s story one that should be told? Maybe. On its face, it’s an interesting window into a world that we don’t often see in full technicolour. But to do it this way, without a trace of self-awareness, not a hint of insight, nary a critical thought… is that really the best we can do?

My tl;dr summary: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Sniper:

  • “Very good book. I would defiantly recommend to anyone. It was full of action and just very well wrote in my opinion” – Riley Madsen
  • “Great book! So great someone busted out my car window and only stole this book and a cellphone charger.” – Two Dogs
  • “I checked this book out from the library. I was thoroughly enjoying this book until I got to page 199 where Chris Kyle talked about watching porn. That ruined the whole book. Although I appreciate his service for the United States, after reading that, I felt completely disappointed and disgusted.” – K.M. Lessing
  • “I think one can be a patriot and Not be disgusting. This is not that.” – alan babcock
  • “Reminded me of junior high school.
    I don’t plan to see the movie.” – Letha Courtney Harmon

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The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

A little while back, I conned my mate Andrew into visiting a secondhand bookstore with me (my friends know that I’m prone to this kind of maneuver). While were were there, another patron overheard me (loudly) bitching about how difficult it was to find a well-preserved copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. She tapped me on the shoulder, pulled this copy off the shelf, and handed it to me so sweetly I almost cried. Well, of course, all of this happened on the very day that I had no cash on me – so Andrew swooped in and bought it for me. What a champion!

I was eager to read more Hemingway. I first encountered his short story Hills Like White Elephants at uni, and I’ve re-read it a thousands times since; it was very formative for me. Other than that, my only real exposure to Hemingway was Kat’s succinct analysis in 10 Things I Hate About You (of course).

Kat on Hemingway - 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, was published in 1926. He actually pulled a sneaky trick to make sure he got the publisher that he wanted for it. While under contract to Boni & Liveright (with whom he was unhappy for some reason), he submitted a hastily-written satirical novella that he knew they would reject, effectively terminating his contract on the spot. This allowed him to submit The Sun Also Rises to Scribner’s, and the rest is history.

The story follows a group of American and British migrants who travel to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Of course, Hemingway was the king of “write what you know”, so the story is very closely based on his own trip to Spain in 1925. The characters were real people in Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events. Apparently, he had originally intended to write a non-fiction book about bullfighting, but he decided that his experiences had given him plenty of content for a novel – and the result was The Sun Also Rises.

So, what’s it like? Well, it seems to confirm the worst of what people say about Hemingway. It’s all brooding white guys, drinking a lot, and butting bruised masculine egos. The women are either shrill harpies or desirable floozies. Nothing much seems to happen in the first part, and you’ve got to keep a weather eye out for the details that make the actual story. A boy likes an unattainable girl, who shags all of his rich friends but sticks him in the friendzone. The boy goes fishing with those friends, and the girl tags along. Everybody drinks.


The dialogue is so sparse and hard to follow that I almost missed what seems to be the focal point of the novel: Jake (the protagonist) is literally impotent, thanks to a nasty war wound. Once I cottoned onto that, I couldn’t decide whether it made The Sun Also Rises better or worse. I know that his injury symbolises the disillusionment and frustration of his entire cohort, not to mention Jake’s own metaphorical impotence in navigating friendships and politics in post-war Europe, but… it’s just a little obvious, isn’t it? A little too neat? I mean, a man gets his dick blown off and starts questioning the meaning of the world without his masculinity in it: pfft.

As much as Hemingway is the darling of the American literary canon, not everybody loved The Sun Also Rises, so I know I’m not alone here. A reviewer at the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote at the time that The Sun Also Rises “begins nowhere and ends in nothing”, which I thought was particularly pithy. Even Hemingway’s own mother wasn’t a fan: she hung shit on him for wasting his talents on such filth, writing to him “Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’ – every page fills me with a sick loathing”. You can’t please everyone…

Anyway, Jake’s love interest is Brett – and wherever she goes, trouble follows. Men fall over themselves for her: they drink too much, and fight one another. I liked Brett in so much as she was unashamed about enjoying sex and chasing good times – there’s not enough of that in female characters, even today – but I certainly didn’t idolise her the way that Grown Up Literary Critics seem to. To me, she was a mere receptacle for all of the projections, hopes and frustrations of men. She lacked any true independence or self-determination. It’s all well and good to commit yourself to the ho-life, but damn girl – have a sense of who you are!




 

Jake’s defective junk is the primary obstacle to their having a relationship – which seems kind of quaint and ridiculous to a post-Sexual Revolution reader. If Brett and Jake had heard of cunnilingus, The Sun Also Rises would have played out differently. Of course, that would depend on Hemingway opening his mind to the sexual agency of a woman. You can be damn sure that if the situation were reversed, and Brett had had her lady parts blown off in the war, Hemingway would have been writing a life of endless blow jobs for Jake – a “happy ending” as it were (ha!).

This is yet another book from The List that makes it abundantly clear to me how little humanity has changed over time (see also: Dante’s The Divine Comedy). Nearly a century after its publication, I still recognise Hemingway’s descriptions of pre-gaming for the fiesta (akin to skulling Vodka Cruisers at home before jumping in the Uber to the club). All the men around Brett are just bitching about how they’ve been “friendzoned”, the way that angry young men do on the internet today. Technology might progress exponentially, and the new cycle might move ever-faster, but those same base urges come forth one way or another.

I think I’ll need to give The Sun Also Rises another read or two before I write it off completely. Another friend (who loves it) asked me what I thought after I’d finished, and (very gently) pointed out all the ways in which I was wrong. It has been critiqued to death, along with all of Hemingway’s other works, and a spot of Googling reveals all kinds of readings that I overlooked. Spoilers actually save the day with this one – it’s actually better if you know the history and the themes going in. The Sun Also Rises should really be appreciated as art, moreso than as a story in and of itself.

My tl;dr summary would be this: it’s a self-indulgent story about drunk Americans and Brits trying to fuck one another and ignore their existential crises in Spain, whinging and bruised male egos galore. Proceed with caution.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sun Also Rises:

  • “Of course I’m missing the point. Literary scholars be damned. This one was just a lot of drinking and yapping away about seemingly insignificant things. The title, I can only surmise, refers to those drinking nights that extend until, you guessed it, the sun rises.” – 3MAT3
  • “I tried to like it. I was in Pamplona and San Sebastian. 20 years ago, and 15 years ago, and 10 years ago, and 2 weeks ago, I started it. I couldn’t stand it. Nothing is worse than a writer penning a story about writing. The book is a cliche. And, Hemingway was a wimp. He drank wimpy drinks. Mojito? Bellini?” – Duff
  • “good writing, no use of pointless big words, not all of us went to harvard, hemingway gets that.” – Lucas Rascon
  • “Easy to read. Mostly pointless – but I guess that’s the point.” – Stanley Townsend
  • “It’s a masterpiece. If you can handle all the drinking, the bitch called Brett, and a pain in the as s named Cohn. But, it’s a classic and Hemingway will at least teach you how to drink absinthe, if you’re too scared to learn his powerful and dangerous approach to descriptive prose, which I highly recommend, as it beats bullfighting for a living, or looking for a male meal ticket, at which Brett excels. Five obligatory stars. If you hated it, you have no soul.” – Pyrata

 

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Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

It was quite some time ago now that I picked up a perfectly-preserved copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from that ever-giving local secondhand bookstore. I know at least one very loyal reader is very excited for this particular review; he’s a former colleague, and for years we shared an in-joke that we would buy a copy of Heller’s seminal work as a Secret Santa gift for a woman on our team who would constantly refer to difficult circumstances as “Catch-42s”. Yes, we’re horrible, petty people, but in our defense it was really, really funny.

Joseph Heller began working on Catch-22 in spare moments at his day job in 1953. The sonofabitch book took eight years to complete, finally published in 1961. Heller died 30 years later. He was the poster child for the uber-precious 20th century white male author, if his introduction is anything to go by. To summarise, he looked back on his masterpiece shortly before his death, stomped his foot, and whined “it didn’t win ANY awards or get on ANY bestseller lists, even though my publisher made some smart people read it and THEY said it was really good! HMPH!“. He was more than a little bitter about the reviews that were less than glowing, even though the book is largely lauded as one of the greatest satirical works of all time. There’s just no pleasing some people…

Catch-22 is set during WWII, between 1942 and 1944. The main character is a bombadier; Heller was also a bombadier during that very period, so apparently he took the whole “write what you know” thing pretty literally. The story follows the life of Captain Yossarian and others in his squadron. They’re all just trying to fulfill or circumvent the requirements of their deployment so they can get the fuck out of Dodge.

I would think that the main reason to pick this one up today is to figure out for yourself the origins of the cultural shorthand “a catch-22”. Luckily, I’m here to save you all the trouble! It’s essentially a plot device: a Catch-22 initially refers to the paradoxical requirement that men who are mentally unfit to fly planes in the war effort did not have to do so, but to claim that you were mentally unfit and did not want to fly made you demonstrably sane (ergo, fit to fly). So, you can’t win either way, it’s a catch-22. Geddit? In the story, Yossarian has a few stabs at getting the squadron’s doctor to declare him mentally unfit (so that he could go home without having to fly any more missions), but he’s stymied at every turn by Catch-22. This “catch” is invoked a lot as the book goes on, with broader and broader applications, until it becomes an explanation for virtually all unreasonable restrictions encountered by the cast of characters.




The ultimate catch, as Yossarian figures out towards the end, is that Catch-22 doesn’t actually exist, except that everyone simply believes that it does – as such, it can never be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. It’s pretty clever, if you ask me. A “catch-22” is now, of course, understood to mean any type of double-bind or absurd no-win situation, but I’d imagine that only a really small percentage of those who use the phrase have actually read the book. (It’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde all over again!)

Catch-22 reads like a satirical memoir in that it’s a series of anecdotes cobbled together to showcase the ridiculousness of war and bureaucracy. In a lot of respects, though, it’s all over the shop; as the introduction puts it, the novel has a “distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration”. Basically, the reader has to figure out for themselves what’s going on and where things are at, because it jumps around like a coked-up rabbit.

The first couple hundred pages are really funny. I don’t think you need to have had exposure to military life to appreciate the comedy – really, any experience in bureaucracy will do. It’s a lot like watching any satirical TV show; there’s a cast of exaggerated characters and maybe a thread or two tying things together, but no real cohesive plot.


Even though Heller was pissed off about its critical reception and sales, Catch-22 actually did quite well. It became particularly popular among teenagers in the 1960s, as a kind of manifesto embodying the feelings they had about the Vietnam War. Indeed, “Yossarian Lives!” became an anti-war slogan at the time, and there was a joke about every liberal arts student arriving at university with a copy of Catch-22 under their arm. So, really, Heller needed to calm down – he captured the youth market at a very turbulent time and coined a phrase used by English speakers every day to describe the universal frustration brought on by dealing with bureaucracy in all its forms. Bloody neurotic writers, they wouldn’t know success if it bit them on the arse…

Like I said, Catch-22 is really funny… for the first couple hundred pages. Past that point, it starts to wear a bit thin. I know Heller was probably Making A Point with all the circular reasoning and repetition, but the point was well-made pretty early on. The second half of the book started to get really predictable (read: boring), and then it nosedived at the end into some really dark realities of war. I recommend that reading some of the funniest excepts online is the best way to go, rather than sinking your teeth into the whole thing (Heller’s neurotic tantrums be damned).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Catch-22:

  • “Worth buy.” – Sarah
  • “Great opening but then the story becomes more and more predictable and boring as the characters develop. The jokes for some reason don’t captivate my soul.” – lolly
  • “It’s a great book. I hate it!” – Cullen Forster
  • “First published in 1961, this scathing satire of nincompoops in the Air Force works today about nincompoops everywhere else.” – Gale H. Weir
  • “I’m in the Army.” – Daniel Dobson
  • “Other than the bible, this is one of my favourite books!” – Mr Paul

 

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The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

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

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


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

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

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

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




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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Great Gatsby:

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

 

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