Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 2)

What Is The Great American Novel?

I’ve reviewed a handful of American classics for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and I’ll be reviewing a few more yet. Whenever I start researching one of them, I’ll always come across a think-piece or a comment thread somewhere debating whether or not the book should be considered the Great American Novel. I’ve referenced the concept a few times myself, but never really addressed the elephant in the room: what is the Great American Novel, exactly? Where did it come from, and why is it so contentious? Now seems as good a time as any to take a look…

What Is The Great American Novel? - Text Overlaid on Image of American Flags - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Origins of The Great American Novel as a Concept

It was, of course, a dead white guy who first coined the phrase “the great American novel”. John William DeForest published an essay in 1868, a few years after the end of the Civil War, in which he defined it as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. America, at the time was a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself; the North and South were barely reconciled, and it was a time of self-conscious tumult in the American identity. American literature was also relatively new; the colonials had written books, of course, but the development of a unique and entirely separate literary tradition in the New World took over a century. So, DeForest’s search for a single book that unified and reflected an all-encompassing American experience was laughably ambitious.

He didn’t have much luck, by the way. Even by his own standard, DeForest said that the composition of the Great American Novel had not yet been achieved. Harriet Beecher Stowe came close, he said, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but didn’t quite get the gong. He was also pretty dismissive of the next-closest option, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. As far as DeForest was concerned, the definitive Great American Novel couldn’t be far off – he had no idea we’d still be arguing over his little thought exercise 150 years later…


How Do We Define the Great American Novel?

We’ve spent a great deal of the intervening century-and-a-half debating DeForest’s idea, and proposing our own definitions and criteria by which we could judge the Great American Novel. Journals and periodicals over the rest of the 19th century featured countless essays by other writers keen to expand on his proposition. The subject became a safe retreat on slow news days for newspapers of the 20th century. And now, we have the internet, which is littered with listicles and slide-shows of the contenders, and more than one “hot take” on why the Great American Novel could never really exist anyway (party poopers).

Of course, there’s no ultimate authority to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, so there’s plenty of fodder to keep us arguing for another hundred and fifty years or so (assuming America lasts that long… eeek!). Above and beyond the criteria we’ve proposed to define a classic book (literary merit and so forth), here are a few suggested definitions we could use to determine what is the Great American Novel.

“The novel is a true and honest reflection of the age.”

Put another way, the Great American Novel must perfectly capture the spirit and culture of a given period in the United States. This one is interesting, because it leaves scope for a different Great American Novel for each era. Examples might include The Great Gatsby, which captured the Jazz Age, or On The Road, reflecting the Beat Generation.

“The novel had a significant cultural impact.”

Now, this is a wily one, because who’s to say what’s “significant”? Heck, who’s to say what’s “cultural impact”? It’s one of those I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it definitions, which can be problematic. So far, the best we can do is rely upon a general agreement regarding “significance” among academics and general readers alike. To Kill A Mockingbird would probably pass the test, given how it revolutionised America’s understanding of social justice and race.

“It must encompass the entire nation, and not be too consumed with a single region.”

This is a lofty goal. It’s one worth considering, of course, but I can’t think of a single contender that actually manages it. The States, united as they may be, are incredibly varied and diverse. Is it really possible for a single book to encompass them all? (If you can think of one, please suggest it in the comments!)

“Its author must have been born in the U.S., or have adopted the country as his or her own.”

Initially, I bristled at this one. It seemed too emblematic of the cultural imperialism perpetuated by America over the last century or so. It would necessarily exclude writers like Vladimir Nabokov, who was Russian-born but authored Lolita, undoubtedly a contender for the Great American Novel by other measures. Surely, the content of the work should bear more weight than the passport of the writer. Perhaps it would be better to say that the author must be deeply knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the “average” U.S. citizen (if there is such a thing).

“The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language of American people, and capture their experience.”

That’s better! By this measure, books like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn fit the bill perfectly. It highlights the use of vernacular, and furthers the cause of using fiction as a source of historical record. Plus, it recognises the uniqueness of the American experience and aspirations, which are undoubtedly different to those found and felt elsewhere.

“It has to be read by or familiar to a large number of Americans.”

This one seems fair enough. I think the addition of the familiarity element is important: these days, relatively few Americans have read Moby Dick in full, for instance, but I guarantee almost all of them would recognise the title. They’d probably even be able to give you a brief, largely accurate, summary of the plot and its themes. That’s a level of saturation that’s hard to ignore.



But, if we’re determined to be cynical, we could conclude that it’s impossible to define or determine what is the Great American Novel. A.O. Scott once proposed that the Great American Novel was effectively a myth, likening its existence to urban legends and conspiracies:

“… the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster – or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people – not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation – claim to have seen.”

A.O. Scott (2006)

All respect to Scott, but even though we all know Big Foot probably doesn’t exist, we still spend hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars searching for him every year. If the debate over what constitutes the Great American Novel keeps people buying and reading books, I’ll go down stoking the flames of this debate.

The Great American Novels

It’s practically impossible to give an exhaustive list of contenders for the Great American Novel. You’d have to scan all four corners of the internet, and fall down so many rabbit holes, to find every single title that’s ever been floated as a possibility. So here are a few that seem to crop up more often than most:

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even though DeForest, the daddy of this whole debate, wrote off The Scarlet Letter, it’s still widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of the Great American Novel. It’s certainly highly recognisable, it’s had significant cultural impact (as judged by its many adaptations and call-backs in subsequent art), it recorded a unique period in American history (puritanical New England), and as far as we know it was a fairly accurate representation of the era.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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

Moby Dick is another uniquely American novel – even though, ironically, very little of the action took place on American soil. The story of Ahab and his white whale can be read as a metaphor for just about anything: democracy, man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with nature (and, more recently, climate change), a critique of capitalism, a critique of slavery, and so on. Plus, it has become culturally ubiquitous, imitated and appropriated by everyone from artists to politicians to academics.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway once said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”. As I was reading it, I could see that Papa was right: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, plain to see are the origins of subsequent literary icons like The Catcher In The Rye. Plus, it is one of the best renderings of American vernacular that I have ever read. Most admirably (depending who you ask), Twain managed to simultaneously exhibit the racist history of the American South, while critiquing it and proposing a new way forward.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

As I mentioned earlier, The Great Gatsby has become synonymous with our recollection of the Jazz Age in America. It’s likely the most aspirational of these contenders for the Great American Novel, highlighting the American desire for wealth and success and all its trappings, as well as the sordid underbelly of the “American dream”. That said, could we really consider it a reflection of a universally American experience? Probably not. But its fans and adherents are so damn vocal, we’ll probably never be able to cross it off the list entirely.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

The Grapes Of Wrath depicts a particularly dark time in America’s history, the Great Depression in the dust bowl of the South. Steinbeck also focused on the experiences of the working class, the “Average Joes” (or Average Joads, as it were), an experience not often explored in the other contenders listed here. It is, to some minds, not quite as iconic as books like Moby Dick or Gatsby, but it does an incredible job of recording and reflecting a uniquely American language and experience in ways that other contenders lack.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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

Here’s another American experience not often captured in other contenders for the Great American Novel: that of the disaffected youth. Holden Caulfield has become perhaps one of the most iconic teenage characters of all time, even beyond the American literary tradition, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a definition of coming-of-age literature that doesn’t cite The Catcher In The Rye somewhere along the line. Sounds like a significant cultural impact to me!



On The Road – Jack Kerouac

On The Road - Jack Kerouac - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another period – this time, the Beat Generation – another definitive novel. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road stands out among its contemporaries. It’s more than just a road-trip novel, more than just a sordid exhibition of the beatniks and their free-loving drink-and-drug-fuelled adventures. It’s an exploration, once again, of American longing, aspiration, and search for meaning. It also has much to say regarding waste and futility in a changing world. Plus, best of all, we can be pretty damn sure of its accuracy in depicting an American experience, being taken – as it was – pretty much directly from Kerouac’s diaries, a very faithful roman-a-clef.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

Just last year, Americans voted To Kill A Mockingbird to be their best-loved novel in the Great American Read survey, so its popularity, recognisability, and endurance are pretty much unquestionable. It remains a fixture on school reading lists, likely for its heady combination of coming-of-age, social justice, and earnest idealism tempered by harsh reality. To be honest, I can’t think of a single definition of the Great American Novel that it doesn’t pass in some measure; it’s one of the strongest contenders to date.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

To Kill A Mockingbird might be the general readership’s favoured choice, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved came out on top in a New York Times survey of 125 writers. Its rise to canonical status has been remarkably quick; just 20 years after its initial publication, it was already considered to be a staple of university reading lists, and Morrison is now listed alongside Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain as one of the greatest American writers of all time. Its perspective and its story are unique in this list, and that in itself highlights the problems with our current understanding of the Great American Novel (more on those in a minute).



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

Granted, this might be a selfish inclusion, because I personally think that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a far better book and a far better reflection of the Jazz Age than stupid Gatsby (and I suspect it’s been overlooked because of the entrenched sexist attitudes that lead us to value the stories of men above those of women, but that’s a rant for another day). But I stand by it, because I’ve got a highly-respected vote in my favour: Edith Wharton, an incredible American writer in her own right, called it the Great American Novel. It’s an honest and true reflection of a perspective on the Jazz Age that has often been marginalised (that of women who empowered themselves through sexuality), and surely that counts for more than its comparative lack of popularity.

Problems With Defining The Great American Novel

Surely you can already see the problem here? On this list of ten contenders, only three were authored by women, and only one by a woman of colour. That’s not a result of my own biases, I promise you. Every list of Great American Novel contenders is very white, and very male.

Ironically, the whole concept began with the work of a woman (DeForest said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the closest he had seen to the Great American Novel, remember?), and yet we’ve historically excluded female authors and female perspectives from these discussions. This goes double – triple! – for people of colour (encompassing Native Americans, African Americans, and later migrants). And there’s a whole stack of other marginalised experiences that rarely get a look in, too…

When we exclude marginalised authors, we exclude marginalised experiences from the narrative, and if that continues we will never have a Great American Novel that is truly representative of an American experience. Part of defining the Great American Novel for the future is redefining what constitutes an American experience, and who belongs in the picture.

It’s not as if there’s a lack of options! Consider books like The Color Purple, The Joy Luck Club, The Book Of Unknown Americans, Americanah, An American Marriage – all of them depict a uniquely American experience, outside the narrow defines of white male privilege.




Still, even with these problems and a marked lack of diversity, the ideal of the Great American Novel will probably never die. In fact, one could argue it’s more important now than ever, in a time of major shifts in an American identity (shifts in culture are always reflected in literature, sooner or later). What do you think constitutes the Great American Novel? Can you come up with any contenders I haven’t listed here? Tell me your ideas in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

I’ve got a little surprise for you, Keeper-Upperers: this review is actually a two-fer! The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the book from The List, and most of this post will focus on that story, but when I picked up this Wordsworth Classic edition, I realised it actually contained The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer as well, so I decided to read them both. As per the blurb on the back, “sharing so much in background and character, these two stories, the best of Twain, indisputably belong together in one volume” – and, as it turns out, in one review 😉

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

The introduction to this edition says that Huck Finn is quite inconsistent as a character, and Tom Sawyer is a “simpler affair” to read. Plus, it comes first in the chronology of events, so aside from anything else it makes sense to read it first. Twain published The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer in 1876, and it was initially a complete flop (all the best ones are!) but it went on to become the best-selling of any of his works during his lifetime. The story is set in the 1840s, in the fictional town of St Petersburg (which is quite obviously based on Twain’s own hometown: Hannibal, Missouri).

I’ll resist the temptation to break down the entire plot in detail for you (otherwise this two-fer review would end up longer than the novels), but suffice it to say that the young protagonist – Tom Sawyer – has a whole bunch of small-town adventures. He wags school, tries to start gangs like his heroes from adventure books, falls in “love” with a girl from his school and breaks her heart, the whole nine yards. The character of Huckleberry Finn (“Huck”) appears often, usually as a kind of side-kick in The Tom Sawyer Show.

I noticed reading The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer that Twain presents the reader with a really unsettling juxtaposition of innocence (see: small-town adventures, as described) and very adult themes. Tom Sawyer witnesses a murder, many in the town experience abject poverty, a couple of the adults are dreadful alcoholics, plus… well, y’know, slavery. These elements – innocence and darkness, side-by-side – really reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suppose that’s hardly surprising; I’d wager that almost all Southern literature has its roots in Twain’s stories. After all, our mate Hemingway once said that “all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain” (and, yes, he was technically referring to Huckleberry Finn, but I think it still holds up).




Tom Sawyer is a good lead-up to The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn in terms of getting you acquainted with the time period and the language. I’m going to acknowledge right here that, yes, there are a lot of racial epithets – some folks are cool with that, some aren’t, it’s up to you to decide for yourself. And on a related note, I must confess it took me an embarrassingly long time to work out that “Injun Joe” actually meant INDIAN Joe (i.e., Native American)…

The introduction was right: The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer is indeed a simpler affair, and I knocked it over fairly quickly. Despite the adult themes, it’s basically a straightforward boy-adventure story. Huck Finn, on the other hand…

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

As much as he was Tom Sawyer’s side-kick in the first book, Huck is definitely the star of the show in this review. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was published eight years after The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and represents – in my mind, anyway – a huge leap forward in terms of Twain’s craft. It was the first major American novel to be written entirely in vernacular English (i.e., in the slang and local colour of the region), and is now considered to be one of the Great American Novels.

I know we generally shit all over vernacular writing and whinge that it makes stories harder to read, but Huck Finn actually felt a lot more readable than Tom Sawyer, like Twain had finally hit his stride. The writing was far more engaging and immersive, and I didn’t struggle with the vernacular at all. If you really hate that style of writing, then sure, give this one a miss, but don’t make the mistake of lumping it in the same basket as D.H. Lawrence and his cronies. If you can handle the Southern accents in the movie version of Gone With The Wind, you won’t have any trouble with The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.




And here’s a cool piece of literary history for you: Twain actually composed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by hand on notepaper, over the course of several years, and the original manuscript still exists today! On it, we can see how Twain’s use of language and vernacular evolved as he was writing it. The famous opening line originally read “You will not know about me”, which Twain later changed to “You do not know about me”, before finally settling on the final version which we now all know so well:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

So, as you can see, Huck tells us of his adventures himself, and they’re a direct sequel to The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Now, our mate Tom takes a pretty sharp left turn; in his book, he’d seemed like an innocent ragamuffin who let the pirate adventure stories he read feed his overactive imagination, but in the first few chapters of Huck Finn he comes across as an out-and-out psychopath. I really didn’t like him much at all after that; he literally tried to start a murder cult, and I’m not about that life.

We get to learn more about Huck Finn, finally, and he is infinitely more likeable (I mean, he’s not perfect, but I was rooting for him just the same). Huck is about thirteen or fourteen, his father is the town drunk and they’re incredibly poor, so it’s tough for the kid to fit in. In his adventures with Tom at the end of the previous book, Huck had come into a large sum of money, so the townsfolk suddenly take an interest in his upbringing and welfare. He goes to live with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson for a while, and they try to beat some Jesus into him, but he escapes their clutches… only to wind up being kidnapped by his drunken a-hole father.




Huck manages to keep his Pap’s dirty hands off the money, but still has a bit of a rough trot with the old man. He’s locked in an isolated cabin in the woods, subjected to bouts of extreme violence, and on the whole things are looking pretty bad… but Huck is an enterprising kid, and he goes all-out with an elaborate escape, literally faking his own death. I mean, sheesh! I tried to run away a few times as a kid, too, but I never took it that far.

On the run, Huck encounters Jim, a huge (but very polite) black man who was once the slave of Miss Watson. It turns out most of the townsfolk assume that Jim killed Huck, and he was scared that Miss Watson would sell him down the river, so he’s done a runner too. Huck has to do a bit of mental gymnastics to overcome the guilt he’s been conditioned to feel for helping a runaway slave, but he comes to care deeply for Jim and they have a lot in common, so they become fellow travellers on the Mississippi River. They head towards a town in Illinois (a free state) where Jim won’t have to live looking over his shoulder.

Now, opinion is very divided as to whether this is a “racist” book, even above and beyond Twain’s liberal use of the n-word. Many academics posit that Twain intended The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn to read as a scathing satire of entrenched social attitudes, especially racism, but there are plenty of people who disagree. They say that Twain not only used racist language, but relied on racial stereotypes to get his point across. For my part, as I read it, there’s obviously a lot of structural racism involved and some white-saviour elements that grossed me out, but Huck and Jim’s relationship seemed to be very genuine, mutual, affectionate, and respectful. On several occasions, Twain explicitly showed Huck working hard to overcome the attitudes he had been socially conditioned to hold, and behave in such a way that contradicted the racism of the time. As such, I don’t think we should hold up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the last word on defeating racism in America, but simultaneously it seems that it was rather progressive in its own time, and it’s still a book from which we could certainly learn more.

“A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience… [Huck Finn is] a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collusion and conscience suffers a defeat.”

Mark Twain

Anyway, back to the fun stuff: Huck and Jim have a series of adventures and mishaps as they travel along the Mississippi. Towards the end, Jim gets captured by a family who believe there is a substantial reward on his head (being, as he is, a runaway slave). Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer, and the two of them make a (very, laughably, elaborate) plan to set Jim free. It involves secret messages, a hidden tunnel, a rope ladder smuggled in Jim’s food (he was kept on the ground floor, but okay), snakes, and a bunch of other stuff that Tom had read about in adventure books. When they finally get Jim out, Tom gets shot in the leg and Jim remains with him, at risk of being recaptured, rather than taking the opportunity to escape alone.

(This is all pretty typical of the adventures that Huck and Jim have together, by the way, and there are a lot of ’em.)




Still, it’s all resolved rather quickly. It turns out that Jim’s “owner” (ugh) had died a couple weeks prior, and granted him freedom in her will. Huck’s father is dead, so he can return home safely. He and Tom set off back to St Petersburg, and Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story. He knows there’s a plan afoot to adopt and “civilise” him, so he plans to flee west (to “Indian Territory”) if they try it.

As much as Tom Sawyer’s adventures reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn oddly evoked another more contemporary book: The Catcher In The Rye. A lot of the same elements are there: a lost, wayward boy; strong characterisation through coarse language and slang; and (of course) a long history of being challenged and banned. As early as 1885, libraries had banned Huck Finn from their shelves. The Boston Transcript newspaper that year ran a story that read:

“The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiencing not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”

Boston Transcript (1885)

Twain reportedly then wrote a letter to his editor, saying:

“Apparently, the Concord Library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums’. This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”

Mark Twain (1885) – funny bastard, eh?

The controversy persists to this day, and it ties into the whole is-the-book-racist debate. Huck Finn was the fifth most challenged book in the U.S. throughout the 1990s, with most objections citing its frequent use of the n-word and other racial slurs. Some publishers have attempted to mollify concerned parents and teachers by, for instance, publishing editions that cut out or replace the offending language. These attempts always backfire (duh), serving only to stoke the fires of the controversy. There’s no “winning” this debate, I tell you…

There is a whole world of really interesting articles and discussions out there, and if you’re curious you should definitely take a look. A lot of people who are far cleverer than me have posted some really insightful analysis about Twain’s treatment of race, identity, class, and the American South. It makes for fascinating reading, whether you (like me) have just read The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn for the first time, or whether it’s your life-long favourite. As for the book itself, I’d say steer clear if you’re sensitive to issues of race and discriminatory language, but if you can stomach that stuff reasonably well, you should give it a go. If you read it once in high-school. but haven’t picked it up since, it’s definitely one that’s worth revisiting. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a nice entree, a simpler story of some interest, but The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the main course, Twain’s pièce de résistance.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:

  • “I THOUGHT THAT THE STORY WAS GOING GREAT AT THE BEGINNING AND IT WAS BUT I JUST STARTED TO GET BORED” – Paul Robert Carroll
  • “Warning, will tell kids about some of your tricks.” – Regular Buyer
  • “Book isn’t normal sized” – Emily S
  • “Mark Twain didn’t write many bad ones.” – Thomas E. Bracking
  • “I’d talk about the plot but I don’t want to get shot!” – Solong
  • “Haven’t read them yet, but I’m sure I will like them because Mark Twain is incredibly entertaining for a dead guy.” – M. Waters
  • “i got this book as a gift to my ex a bit before we broke up.” – David A Medina
  • “Dude no words only pics a few pics 4 me. I hated it. This best way 2 read this is 2 smash whatever device u r using” – Ayden mccormick
  • “I was forced to read this for school and it was a complete waste of time I would much rather be reading Lolita or listening to one direction” – Felicia Hill


The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton


The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.

The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.


Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

 

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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