Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 4)

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark

I first discovered the My Favorite Murder podcast back in 2017. I went all the way back to the beginning and binge-listened to every single episode (yes, I’m a podcast junkie, but this one was particularly addictive), and I haven’t missed one since. We fans call ourselves “Murderinos”, and there are tens of thousands of us around the world. The hosts are Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and they have over 20 million monthly listeners. “You come for the murder, you stay for the camaraderie” they say, and they’re right. Their friendship is the reason their podcast, and now their book, works. Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is their dual memoir published last year (and this copy was very kindly gifted to me by my very dear friend and fellow Murderino, Chent).

Sidebar: The book is gorgeous, of course, but I must say, I was really bemused by the fact that in the blurb the word “bullshit” is censored (stylised as “bullsh*t”), but they let the word “unfuckwithable” fly in full. Weird, eh?

Anyway, I’ve never read a dual memoir before. In fact, this is the first (officially) co-authored book I’ve reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a strange mix of self-help and memoir, like a “Look what we learned by how badly we fucked up!” guide to life. Kilgariff and Hardstark’s transparency about hard times and shitty decision-making is gloriously disarming. They cover everything from self-care, to relationships, to substance abuse, to staying sexy, to not getting murdered.

Ah, murder: you’d think that, given the nature of their brand and the subject of their podcast, that Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered would be full of true crime chat. Not so! True crime is mentioned in passing, of course (given that it’s their passion, and now their life’s work), but it’s not a focus. When they do mention it, mostly towards the end of the book, they steer away from recounting grisly details or glorifying sensational cases. Instead, they use the opportunity to pay respects to victims and families, and call out the toxic habit of victim-blaming.

“… at the end of the day, the only reason it matters is the victim. It’s the victim and their friends and family who will forever be affected by the trueness of the crime long after the killer is caught…”

Page 295

The book’s title, and all its chapter headers, are taken from catch-phrases and in-jokes used in the podcast. Basically, Kilgariff and Hardstark take their winning formula and reproduce it in print, only they’re now talking about their lives instead of murders. Their personalities and tone translate well, and there’s no pretentious attempts at literariness. These podcasters are well aware—and they make their readers well aware of their well-awareness—that they aren’t Professional Authors(TM). There’s no bullshit, they’re not writing like they hope they’ll win the Pulitzer. They’re just two insanely popular women with a huge fan base, responding to popular demand for a book about their experiences. They write as they speak, which they know (based on the weight of evidence) will resonate.





Most Murderinos will already be at least somewhat familiar with many of the stories recounted in Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, but Kilgariff and Hardstark offer more nuanced and detailed insights than they might off-the-cuff in a podcast recording. Their radical vulnerability, their unabashed hanging out of dirty laundry, is very impressive. They are candid and personable, just as you’d hope them to be, and they encourage their readers (as they do their listeners) to eschew the myth of “perfection” and the reverence of politeness. OK, fine, they out-and-out tell readers to “fuck politeness”, and I must say, I agree.

It’s quite funny—I laughed out loud a few times. I’m not sure I’d call Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered a laugh riot exactly, there are a lot of stories of trauma and devastation, but you’re sure to crack a few smiles at least (and if you don’t, you’re dead inside, seek help).

I’m not sure how much this book would mean to readers who don’t already listen to the podcast, though. As I’ve said, it’s generously seasoned with in-jokes, the kind that have already been broadcast to millions and adopted by the die-hard fans as mantras (“stay out of the forest”). Kilgariff and Hardstark are trading, intentionally or not, on the goodwill and emotional investment that already exists. Sure, Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered might win them a few more Murderinos, but I think for the most part, it goes out to the lovers. Still, for them (and I include myself), this book is a slam dunk. It’s like getting to sit in on your best friend’s therapy session. (Oh, yeah, they advocate therapy, a lot—it’s very L.A.)

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is definitely one of the better celebrity memoirs I’ve read, on par with Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. This is what I was hoping to get from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please—my wish has finally been fulfilled. Does that make Karen and Georgia my fairy godmothers? Hope so!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Favorite Murder:

  • “haven’t read…..too busy listening to their PodCast.” – Alison Kramer
  • “…. If I wanted to hear that I should go to therapy a dozen times I’d just listen to my sister rag on me for free.” – Bellingham Bookworm
  • “this book cleared my acne and cured my depression. I love my moms Georgia and Karen, and I LOVED this book.” – Hannah @ A Reading Red Sox
  • “I love staying sexy and not getting murdered. Thank you Karen and Georgia.” – AK
  • “Buy it you true crime lover!!!” – Alex H
  • “I Laughed, I Cried, I Got Inspired! Consider me not murdered.” – Jenna T
  • “Great read! Withstands spilled beer. Would recommend.” – Zack


Less – Andrew Sean Greer

On my journey out of the post-Ulysses haze, I found myself unsurprisingly in the mood for some “light” reading. Big Little Lies was a page turner, don’t get me wrong, but there weren’t a whole lot of laughs to be had amidst all the rape, abuse, and manslaughter. Browsing my shelves, I happened upon a little light blue spine: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It piqued my interest, as I knew it to be a unicorn: an #ownvoices comedy that had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

You might wonder how I knew it was a comedy, #ownvoices or otherwise, and to answer that I’ll give you a short excerpt from an event I attended at the Sydney Writer’s Festival that year, Andrew Sean Greer in conversation with local legend David Marr:

Marr: “Look, I don’t know how familiar you are with Australian English. Do you know the meaning of the word ‘fuckwit’?”

[audience laughs]

Greer: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that.”

Marr: “It means ‘fool’. It’s a vivid local piece of patois to mean ‘fool’.”

Greer: “Wonderful! ‘Fuckwit’?”

Marr: “Yes, fuckwit. Because the hero of your book is, it appears, for a good deal of the book, a complete fuckwit.”

And with that, I was formally introduced to the protagonist, Arthur Less – the one that David Marr described as a fuckwit, in tones of great affection (as Australians are wont to do). On that basis alone, I was inclined to give Less a go. I also noticed that one of the highly complimentary blurbs on my edition came from none other than my girl, Karen Joy Fowler. That settled it: I had to read this book.

Arthur Less worries that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old” (which made me laugh… until I thought about the heavier connotations, “old” gays being the only ones who survived the AIDS crisis, not so funny). He finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time fuck-buddy dumps him to marry a far more eligible (and age appropriate) bachelor. Arthur Less decides that he must act. He can’t RSVP “no” to the nuptials and admit defeat, but he couldn’t possibly attend either, especially with his own 50th birthday looming… so, he proceeds to accept every half-baked invitation he’s received to literary events around the world, and sends his ex his regrets, citing “unfortunate” prior engagements.

And there we have it: this fuckwit is relatable as all hell. Planning a round-the-world trip on the spur of the moment to avoid an awkward social encounter? Big mood!





This premise gives Greer the opportunity to absolutely tear shreds off the literary world through satire. He never misses an opportunity to lampoon the self-reverential ridiculousness of it all. Arthur Less is “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”. His first stop is New York, where he chairs an event for a wildly successful and seriously overrated sci-fi writer (Less suspects he was the only author desperate enough to do the gig for free). Then, he joins a panel at a festival in Mexico, only to learn that all the preeminent guests are dead. In Italy, a generous translation of his debut novel wins an award, judged by a committee of high school students. On and on it goes…

The episodic structure also allows Greer to parade a series of colourful characters through Arthur Less’s voyage of self-discovery, BUT – I hasten to add – this isn’t your standard white-guy-sees-the-world-and-comes-home-transformed narrative. Greer is very careful not to fetishise the “exotic locals”. Arthur Less, the fuckwit, is always the butt of the joke. And his “self-discovery” seems almost accidental. He didn’t set out with any intention of transformation, he just wanted to avoid his ex’s wedding, and his personal growth is just a side-effect of his bumbling adventures.

My favourite part: Arthur Less accepts a visiting professor post at a university in Germany. He teaches a class called “Read Like A Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein”. It becomes immediately clear to the reader and everyone else that Arthur Less’s insistence that he is “fluent” in German is a complete delusion. Hilarious!





The narration feels very personal, a conversational third-person perspective, or so we think. In a Vanity Fair-esque twist, we learn towards the end that the story is being told by… shall we say, a friend of Arthur Less (for once, I won’t give spoilers – I don’t want to ruin the fun!). I think that’s the key, that’s what makes Less work. Arthur Less is so lovelorn, so self-pitying, such a sad sack, that Less would not have worked if told from his own point of view. It would have been morose and miserable and flat-out annoying. As it stands, though, Less is a very literary comedy. Even when the humour is slapstick, Greer manages to write it in a clever and challenging way. This is a book that could work equally well as a beach read and a citation in your thesis.

That was the whole idea, of course. Greer said that he began writing Less as a “very serious” novel, but he soon figured out that the only way to write about the miseries of an ageing, gay writer (as an ageing, gay writer) was to make it funny. This is a realisation that Arthur Less has himself in the book, too. I really dig this determinedly self-deprecating approach. It lets Greer parody all the priviliged-white-American-abroad tropes, to my great delight.

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, Less also spent an unbelievably long time on the New York Times Best Seller List, and even won the 2019 Australian Book Industry Award for International Book Of The Year. All of this is to say that Less is both a critical and a popular success. Greer has certainly won a fan in me! I highly recommend this book, particularly to fans of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, or anyone in need of a chuckle and a little heart-warming.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Less:

  • “I was expecting more.” – Peter Boyd
  • “My whole book club did not like this book. I liked the writing about the different cities.” – Elaine M. Bloom
  • “I never write book reviews but good god, what a complete dump of a book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I read it. It was a book.” – M D White
  • “Some humorous lines, but not worthy of such praise. I really don’t get all the accolades… guess I am less understanding.” – Nance T Lodge
  • “Less less less less less less less
    Lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser
    Least least least least least least least.” – Mike F.
  • “I am an avid reader . I usually love Pulitzer Prize winners. I did not think this book was very special.” – Maria G. Fitzpatrick
  • “Love the ending. [SPOILER ALERT] it’s basically the gay, prose version of Taylor Swift’s “How You Get The Girl”” – Joyce Reneau


A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man is a short novel, first published in 1964, by American author Christopher Isherwood. It tells the story of a day in the life of – you guessed it – a single man, George. He’s a middle-aged professor at a Los Angeles university, still grieving the recent loss of his partner, Jim. You wouldn’t think that it’s a funny story, but this slim volume was chockers full of darkly comic moments that had me literally laughing out loud.

A Single Man is different from Isherwood’s other books. In his own words, it’s “the only book of mine where I did more or less what I wanted to do”. The others (including Goodbye To Berlin) famously drew upon his time teaching English in Germany, where he witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis. But it was later, in the ’50s, that he started drafting a film script, then titled The Day’s Journey. It was that project that eventually became A Single Man.

He sought to pay homage to Mrs Dalloway (which he called “one of the most truly beautiful novels or prose poems or whatever that I have read”), fashioning it as a day in the life of an English woman; indeed, a later draft was re-titled The Englishwoman. All of these ideas bubbled away on the back-burner of his brain for years. In a diary entry from 1962 (ten years after he began), he records that his lover, Don Bachardy, suggested changing the gender of the central character and making the story more autobiographical. Don later said publicly that he thought Isherwood had written an imagined version of what might happen if they were ever separated. He also said that the writer was “very difficult and very tiresome” to live with as he completed the novel – ooh, snap!

Even though it sounds like Don had a major influence on A Single Man, Isherwood actually dedicated it to Gore Vidal. Vidal, in turn, called Isherwood “the best prose writer in English”. Take this as an important lesson, would-be novelists: if you want renowned intellectuals to say nice things about you, just dedicate a good book to them. That’ll do the trick!

My Vintage edition has a nice, short introduction, written by Tom Ford – yes, the fashion designer, but also the creative mind behind the movie adaptation starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. It’s a touching, personal tribute to Isherwood and his work, without being overwrought or overdone.



So, to the story itself: A Single Man begins when George’s day begins, waking up, going about the usual coffee and ablutions. Right away, I found it hard to believe Isherwood was writing in 1964 – it felt so contemporary, almost timeless. George is despondent, bereaved, mourning a lover he couldn’t publicly declare (remember, back in the day, even being “out” wasn’t being out). And yet, Isherwood writes in such a cool and dispassionate way that George’s bitterness and misanthropy comes across as hilarious and matter-of-fact.

“George feels a bowel movement coming on with agreeable urgency, and climbs the stairs briskly to the bathroom, book in hand.”

Page 7, A Single Man

Throughout the course of his day, George meets and interacts with the people around him, his thoughts and feelings constantly coloured by his grief. He teaches a class, tries to skip a social engagement (and fails), works out, goes to the supermarket, has a drink with a friend, and engages in an illicit flirtation with one of his students. All the while, he tries his best not to present himself to the world as a grieving widower – because, of course, he can’t, and in the eyes of the law, he isn’t one. Still, his sense of loss consumes his every waking moment.

Now, what makes all of this particularly heart-wrenching (spoiler alert, etc. etc.) is that we find out in the final pages that this day is actually the last day of George’s life. The plot fades to black, in a sense. I know that sounds trope-y or cliche, but I swear to Oprah it doesn’t read that way. Isherwood writes it really well, and he knew it, too – he called A Single Man his masterpiece. Most people are surprised to hear that, thinking that Goodbye To Berlin or one of his other more popular works would rank above, but I’m sure he was right.

I really enjoyed A Single Man. It’s a quick read, but a powerful and moving one. All of that heart-wrenching and grief-striking is counterbalanced with humour and insight. I laughed out loud a lot, as I said, but maybe take my reaction with a grain of salt. After all, I have a pretty dark sense of humour, so maybe I responded with more mirth than most readers would. Still, if you’re looking for a shining gem of a book to squeeze into your limited reading time, this one would be perfect.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Single Man:

  • “Sad story with no plot that just kept getting sadder. Very hard to read.” – jared abrahamse
  • “‘A Single Man’ was a homosexual who lost his lover due to an accident…Homosexuals suffer a lost just like everyone else, but perhaps it may be more difficult and stressful since the relationship may be closeted” – Beverly Guardino

Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos

Nineteen Nineteen is the second book of a trilogy, now called the U.S.A. trilogy, by American writer John Dos Passos. The first book of the trilogy (The 42nd Parallel) was published in 1930, followed by Nineteen Nineteen in 1932, and the finale (The Big Money) in 1936. They were all published together in a single volume for the first time in 1938. They are widely considered the peak of Dos Passos’s career, and it was off the back of these books that Jean Paul Sartre said he considered Dos Passos to be “the greatest writer of our time”. I think all of this begs an obvious question…

… why have so few people heard of Nineteen Ninteen, or John Dos Passos?

Well, here we have yet another 20th century writer who lives in the inconceivably-large shadows of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Indeed, they were all good friends, the three of them (at least initially, but more on that in a second). Alas, in the intervening decades, Dos Passos has receded from view while the other two have continued to loom large.

Nineteen Nineteen was Dos Passos’s response to the Great War, in which – like Hemingway – he served as an ambulance driver. He had always had communist leanings, but after the conflict he travelled with Hemingway to Spain, and that’s where things got hairy. Dos Passos found the viciousness of some of the communist revolutionaries confronting (to say the least), and his reaction led to a falling out with Hemingway, who didn’t find their approach as bothersome. Thus began another great literary feud: Dos Passos headed home to write about the everyday lives of characters affected by WWI (with special attention to the social and economic forces that shaped their lives) while Hemingway wrote letters to Fitzgerald, saying that Dos Passos was a “second-rate writer with no ear” and “also a terrible snob”. As best I can tell, they never made up.



Though he found the situation in Spain pretty challenging ethically, Dos Passos never entirely gave up his communist cause. He found new conviction when he saw the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in his home country. By the time he got back, the glittery days of the Jazz Age were long gone, and the combined forces of the crash, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism were tearing his world apart. Depicting the truth of this state of affairs in literature became Dos Passos’s passion, and you can see that in the way he wrote Nineteen Nineteen.

It’s hardly a straight-foward novel, in that it’s a highly experimental fusion of fiction and journalism. There are four different narrative “modes”. The first is the most recognisable to contemporary readers, narrative fiction that follows the lives of a few key characters (twelve across the trilogy as a whole, but they’re not linked in any significant way). Then, there are the “Newsreel” sections; these contain collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and front-page headlines (drawn almost entirely from the real-life Chicago Tribune). There are also, in the third mode, short biographies of public figures. I only recognised the names of a couple of former Presidents, but there are plenty of others, including “The Body Of An American”, which tells the story of an unknown soldier killed in WWI. And I’ve saved the weirdest mode for last, the “Camera Eye”: autobiographical stream-of-consciousness passages, which seem to be Dos Passos’s way of inserting himself and his own personal perspective into the story.

The alternative and experimental modes can be discombobulating, but at least they’re all really distinct in style. You never wonder what it is exactly you’re reading, because Dos Passos has signposted it really clearly for you. I read later that his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” sections were inspired by modernist innovation and the emergence of “mass communication” through television and the telegraph. Can you imagine if he’d lived to see Twitter?



Dos Passos was clearly trying to Do Something Different(TM). Nineteen Nineteen, with all these different modes, isn’t cohesive or continuous at all. It’s a series of fragments, more like a creative writing class notebook than a complete novel (and this edition came complete with doodled illustrations, too). At a guess, I’d say I was able to properly comprehend maybe half of it. I struggled to follow what was going on in the narrative sections, because it was broken up by all the other stuff, so I’m not confident in giving you a complete plot summary here.

What I will say, content-wise, is that there’s a lot of sex and violence, and Dos Passos isn’t shy. I don’t mind graphic books, but I figured I’d mention it as a heads up if you do. What did bother me, though, was the recurring motif of men trying to convince their lovers to get abortions, and blaming the women for getting pregnant in the first place. Ugh!

Oh, and a passable knowledge of French would really come in handy reading this one, especially towards the end. Without it, you’re going to end up Google Translating a lot, like me.



Dos Passos does succeed in his primary objective, however, to hammer home his communist message. He has no sympathy at all for his “upwardly mobile” characters, but simultaneously he’s very kind and generous to his down-and-out victims of capitalist society.

In the end, I really felt nothing for this book. I could appreciate that Dos Passos was being really very clever and experimental and all of that, but perhaps just too much so for me to actually enjoy reading. I read later that Nineteen Nineteen has been adapted a number of times for radio and stage – don’t ask me how, holy Oprah, but I won’t be seeking them out. I’m a firm believer, as I’ve said before, that loving a book simply means that you’ve come to it at the right time in your reading life; maybe if I’d come to Nineteen Nineteen at some other time, I’d feel differently about it. As it stands, right now, I’m a bit sick of enduring 500+ pages of old white men telling me that war and capitalism are bad. Sorry, Dos Passos (if it’s any consolation, I wasn’t that big on your frenemies Fitzgerald and Hemingway, either).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nineteen Nineteen:

  • “First book of the Trilogy was very good. This one just drones on and on and on with few interesting characters and interminable descriptions of the labor struggle. Can’t wait to finish because I want to get on to the last installment. I know now why Dos Passos played third fiddle to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” – JB Haller
  • “I am not a fan of the camera eye. In addition, longsentenceswithallwordsattacheddonotworkwellforme. Well written prose and interesting narrative from an historical standpoint. I took a two-book pause between its predecessor 42nd Parallel and 1919. I may take a two-decade pause until I open The Big Money, well well after I’ve read Ragtime, Manhattan Transfer, and Berlin. Alexander Platz.” – Amazon Customer


The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

So, I’m not particularly familiar with Raymond Chandler, but for crime fiction fans he’s basically God. Anthony Burgess once said: “Chandler is an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes“. That’s some mighty comparison! The Big Sleep is Chandler’s best-known novel, published in 1939, and it was the first to feature that immortal Sherlockian detective.

Everyone comes to The Big Sleep for Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles, and he was certainly an evocative place writer, but I personally loved his characterisations most of all. I got a lot of smirks out of descriptions like: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money” = brilliant! That said, Chandler was far from perfect when it came to plotting. The Big Sleep is complex, criss-crossing, and full of holes, like a hand-knitted jumper from a kindly arthritic grandma. So, bear with me as I try to explain…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is having a grand old life, being vaguely sexist and drinking a lot of hard liquor, when he gets a call from wealthy patriarch General Sternwood. Sternwood wants Marlowe to “deal with” a recent blackmail attempt on his daughter, Carmen. And Marlowe won’t have to work too hard, because they’ve already fingered the culprit: bookseller Arthur Geiger, whose bookselling operation is actually a front for his illegal pornography trade.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of Sternwood’s son-in-law, husband of his other daughter Vivian: Rusty Regan has disappeared off the face of the earth. Vivian puts the heavies on Marlowe herself, trying to figure out whether he’s on that case, too. But mostly, it’s the blackmailing thing. Sternwood tells Marlowe to deal with that as a priority.

So, off Marlowe trots to investigate this “bookseller” Geiger, starting with a good old-fashioned stakeout at his house. He sees Carmen walk in, but doesn’t follow her, figuring he’ll wait and see what happens… and then he hears gunshots, and screaming. He heads inside and finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged and naked, both sprawled out in front of an empty camera.

First thing’s first: he gets Carmen into a jacket and home safe. But, upon returning, he finds Geiger’s body has disappeared. Uh oh.



The next day, the coppers come around and tell Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ car was driven off a cliff with the chauffeur still inside (but he was whacked around the head before the car hit the water, so at least he didn’t suffer). They also grill Marlowe about whether he’s chasing after Regan. Seriously, every other minute someone’s pestering Marlowe about this missing Regan bloke – I can’t think of a single character that doesn’t ask him about it at some point.

Anyway, still on the blackmailing case, Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s bookstore and sees his porn stash being moved to the home of one Joe Brody. Before he can figure out what to do about that, Vivian hits him up, telling him Carmen is still being blackmailed, but now with nude photos from the night before. She also tells him, just casually, that she likes gambling at a casino belonging to Eddie Mars, whose wife (she suspects) ran off with Regan.

To his credit, Marlowe doesn’t take the bait straight away. He heads back to Geiger’s house first, and finds Carmen trying to break in. They search for the nudes together, with no luck, and she plays dumb about what happened the night before. Then Eddie Mars, the casino owner, coincidentally shows up. He says he’s Geiger’s landlord and he’s looking for him. He and Marlowe have a pissing contest.



Are you lost and confused yet? I hope not, because we’re not even halfway through! With all the crossing and double-crossing, it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what to whom. Plus, I’m not sure I quite buy how often Marlowe “just happened” to witness a murder, or arrive on the scene while the body’s still warm…

Next, Marlowe heads over to Joe Brody’s, where they’re stashing the porn. He works out Brody is in cahoots with Geiger’s clerk, Agnes. He tells them both the jig is up: he knows about the porn, he knows about the blackmail… but before he can finish them, Carmen breaks in and tries to shoot them both. Marlowe gets the gun off her, thank goodness (a strumpet with a temper and a firearm is not a good combination), and he tells her to head out, he’s got this.

Geiger was, in fact, the one initially blackmailing Carmen. The (now dead) chauffeur, Owen Taylor, didn’t like it much, because he had the hots for her. He snuck in and killed Geiger, and took the nudes out of the camera for safekeeping. Brody had also been staking out the house (how did he and Marlowe not run into each other?), and he followed Owen when he left. He knocked the driver out, stole the nudes, then decided to do a little blackmailing of his own.



Then – bam! Geiger’s lover shows up, and shoots Brody dead. He thought Brody was the one who killed Geiger, and wanted to get some revenge. Also, he admits, he was the one who hid Geiger’s body – he wanted to get all of his stuff out of the house before anyone figured out they were more than friends (this was the ’30s, after all).

So, case solved! Yay! All the blackmailers are dead, happy days. But Regan’s disappearance is still troubling Marlowe – probably because everyone around him won’t shut up about it. The cops aren’t that concerned though; they figure he just ran off with Mrs Mars, like Vivian said.

Now, we meet Henry Jones (yes, Chandler is still introducing new characters, and they all have super-generic names – ack!). He offers to sell Marlowe the location of Mrs Mars, but he doesn’t get the chance, because Eddie has him killed. The Big Sleep‘s death toll is now up to four. Luckily, Marlowe manages to squeeze the information out of Agnes instead. He finds Mrs Mars (killing Eddie’s henchman in the process – that’s five!), only for her to tell him that she hasn’t seen Regan in months. Dead end, after all that!

With hat in hand, Marlowe goes to see his client. But Sternwood ups the stakes, offering him $1,000 for Regan’s whereabouts. Marlowe quickly decides that this isn’t the moment to give up. On his way out the door, he returns Carmen’s gun to her, and she asks him to take her down the back paddock and teach her how to shoot. Fair enough, he thinks, but as soon as they get out there she decides to use him as the target.



But Marlowe, being a clever bugger, has loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen immediately falls into a (very convenient) seizure, which saves her from having to explain herself. He carries her up to the house, and he and Vivian finally piece it all together. A while back, Carmen came on to Regan and he rejected her, so she killed him (as she just tried to do with Marlowe). Eddie Mars, who had been an investor in Geiger’s little porno enterprise, had helped Vivian cover it up. He disposed of the body, and invented a cock-and-bull story about his wife running off with the dead guy. Vivian claims she did it all to keep her father from finding out his other daughter was a psychopath, and she promises to get Carmen locked up in a nice cozy mental institution.

So, to celebrate a job well done, Marlowe heads down the pub. He downs a few scotches, muses briefly on death, and tells the bartender he has the hots for Mrs Mars but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. The title, The Big Sleep, is Marlowe’s euphemism for death that he uses in those final pages.

The Big Sleep, like most of Marlowe’s novels, was written by what he called “cannibalising” his short stories. Chandler would take stories he had already published and rework them into a coherent novel. For The Big Sleep, he mashed together his short stories Killer In The Rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936). Although the stories were independent, and shared no characters, they ran along similar lines – an old powerful bloke whose daughter is stressing him out, basically.



As might be expected, all of this cannibalising sometimes produced a plot with a few loose ends. The famously unanswered question in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur, Owen? I mean, logic would suggest that it must have been Brody, but Chandler never confirmed it – in fact, when the question was put to him, he said he had no idea. To him, plot was less important than atmosphere and characterisation (and it shows). An ending that answered every question mattered less to Chandler than interesting characters, so bear that in mind when you pick this one up.

The Big Sleep is quite similar to one of my other recent reads, The Maltese Falcon, in a lot of ways, but I think I preferred Hammett’s style. If you’re a dedicated crime/detective mystery reader, though, The Big Sleep would be a good one for you – you’ll be well practiced at following the twists and turns, and it’s clearly a classic of the genre.

If you’re not sure, you can try before you buy. There have been a bunch of different adaptations into almost every format – most famously a 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart (naturally). I’m not sure I’ll read The Big Sleep again, but I’d be keen to give the movie a go – it reads like it would translate really well into film.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Big Sleep:

  • “Lime gimlets. What more do I need to say.” – AH Jones
  • “I read a great deal and have read nothing better. Frequently not as well crafted. Correct as to the time period. Yes I’m that old.” – cain paul the less than apostle
  • “a classic that doesnt dissapoint. named my cat marlowe.” – ssfn
  • “Book showed up good. Had pages and ever thing.” – Ken Johnson
  • “chandler like so many authors puts too many non essentials in his plots make them a little too much boring” – Astan papemazon Customer
  • “Descriptive wording. Love that.” – Lynne B.
  • “A good reader. Turnpager.” – Maycoon


The Adventures Of Augie March – Saul Bellow

The blurb from Martin Amis on the back of this edition says: “The Adventures Of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” That’s a big call, but Amis is by no means the only one to make it. Since its publication in 1953, The Adventures Of Augie March has won the National Book Award for Fiction, it has been named in at least three best-novels-in-English lists (from Time Magazine, the Modern Library, and the Guardian), and Saul Bellow was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The committee cited the “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work” – whew! If I hadn’t included this one in my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, I would’ve felt like I was missing out.

The continued blurb below the pull-quote from Amis made The Adventures Of Augie March sound like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim meets J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, set in Chicago during the Great Depression. And the comparison titles don’t end there; the introduction to this edition compares it to The Great Gatsby, which immediately got me offside because my dislike of Fitzgerald’s work has only grown over time. (And not to get ahead of myself, but within a few pages I could see that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens via David Copperfield, and the influence of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was also abundantly clear. There! I’m done!)

Setting the Gatsby comparison aside, the introduction did give me a few fun facts about Bellow’s back-story and origins (which is why I always read the introduction, even at the risk of spoilers). Bellow was born in Quebec, and his parents smuggled him across the Great Lakes when he was an infant. He didn’t discover that he was an “illegal immigrant” until he signed up for the United States armed forces during the Second World War. I’d imagine that led to a rather awkward conversation at the next Bellow family Christmas!

As much as I enjoyed those insights, I must say I didn’t love this edition. It’s probably the first Penguin book with which I’ve found fault. The print has really tight spacing, with almost no white space on the page, which makes it really tough on the eyes (I’m not old, and I don’t wear glasses, so I feel pretty confident that I wasn’t imagining it). You should know going in that this review must be unavoidably coloured by my frustration with the actually practice of reading Augie’s adventures. As hard as I’ve tried to rise above it, I can’t deny that book design matters, and it will definitely impact a reader’s impression of a story…



So, the story follows Augie March’s teenage years and adulthood, starting with some very humble beginnings in 1920s Chicago. Augie, along with his brothers Simon and George, are raised by their mother and a crotchety boarder who fills a grandmother-type role in their lives. Their father is nowhere to be found, they’re broke as heck, and their mother’s eyesight is slowly failing, so it’s pretty shitty circumstances all ’round. It’s clear from the outset that Augie has very little agency in his own life; he pretty much just lets things happen to him and around him, and he doesn’t do much to push his life in any particular direction.

At one point, he is almost adopted by a wealthy couple who spoil him beyond measure. At another, he resorts to stealing books and re-selling them to make his living. His most unusual and unexpected adventure, by far, was the time he followed a wild and irrepressible young lady, Thea (for whom, it goes without saying, he has a huge boner), down to Mexico and fails in his efforts to help her set up a business catching lizards with a trained eagle. Hard to imagine where it all went wrong, eh? He has a lot of jobs, in a strange variety of fields: a dog groomer, a butler, a shoe salesman, a paint-seller, a coal miner, a union organiser… eventually, he settles into the merchant navy during WWII. And, believe it or not, all of Augie’s adventures are loosely based on Bellow’s own life experiences. What a life he led!

Fair warning: the story gets very heavy and quite graphic about mid-way through, when Augie helps his housemate through a botched back-alley abortion. I haven’t found many other reviews that bring this up, but I feel like those scenes and all their gory detail could be real triggering for some folks. So, bear that in mind!



Anyway, Augie seems pretty happy in the merchant navy, until his boat sinks and he finds himself trapped on a life-raft with a clown called Basteshaw. It’s a long and convoluted passage of the book, written in a quasi-surreal style, before Augie is rescued. Once he’s back on dry land, he returns to Stella – the woman he married before he sailed – and the story concludes with them cobbling together a very dubious existence in France. Augie gets involved in some shady business dealings, and Stella pursues her career as an actress. The end.

Yes, Augie and his women – the course of love runs anything but smooth. None of the ladies are particularly noteworthy: it seems like Bellow just put them in the story to prop up Augie’s development arc, with the exception of Thea. She’s the one that drags him to Mexico, and the only female character with any real backbone or agency. She dumps him when he gets kicked in the head by a horse and loans all his money to another woman (the two incidents are not as unrelated as they may appear, trust me).

It would seem that The Adventures of Augie March was Bellow’s attempt to subvert the tropes of the all-American hero. He gave Augie a fairly standard American hero backstory – comes from humble beginnings, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, sometimes acts outside the law – and he’s got all the typical heroic personality traits, like intelligence and compassion. But Augie never actually acts like a hero! He lets himself get pulled into the plans and schemes of others, and he watches those around him grow more and more successful in their own pursuits, while he just kicks around, jumping from one coattail to another. The critics have said that Bellow was Making A Point(TM): that intelligence and goodwill are of no value if their possessor has no self-awareness and no clear goal. It’s a good point, and it’s well made in the sense that the reader desperately wants Augie to get his shit together and is constantly frustrated in that desire. I’d say he’s probably one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever read, in that regard.



It’s a deeply American novel in that it’s all about the pursuit of happiness. Bellow explores a lot of extremes: alienation and belonging, poverty and wealth, disadvantage and privilege, failure and triumph. His influence on subsequent writers – Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Heller, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the OP fanboy Martin Amis – is clear.

All that said, I found The Adventures Of Augie March a real slog to read. I think that was partly due to the book’s design, as I said, and having to persist with it for so long (over six hundred pages of tiny text! gah!). But, mostly, I think it was the fact that I just couldn’t invest in it emotionally. The characters I cared about and enjoyed reading – for instance, Mimi, the victim of the botched abortion – were all bit-players. I could have happily put this one down mid-way through, never picked it up again, and lived a long happy life not knowing or caring what happened to Augie March. It’s a strange outcome, given that I loved so many of those comparison titles I listed at the beginning. The Adventures Of Augie March wasn’t particularly obtuse or pretentious, two elements of literature that really bug me, so on paper I should have really loved it… I just didn’t! I persisted ’til the end, just so I could bring you this review in good conscience. You’re welcome.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Augie March:

  • “American Novel. Period. Look no further. Doesn’t even matter that it was written by a liberal because the Democratic Party was actually relevant when Bellow was alive.” – Caddy
  • “Not the great American novel. Good, but not in the upper echelon of literature. You will, of course, disagree with me. I’ll read it again.” – Earnest
  • “Yes Ok the book deals well with relationships but to allude that Augie March had adventures is misleading. The most interesting part of the book is the “hero’s” name and the lizard. Yes Augie you “… may well be a flop”, that was the most relevant statement in the book and it came on page 536. I just wanted the book to get started and it was over.” – A Customer


The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

If you’ve ever found yourself reading a detective mystery and wondering “but, wait, could that really happen to a reallife detective?”, The Maltese Falcon might be the book for you. Dashiell Hammett was an American writer, but before that he was an actual real-life detective. He’s now regarded as one of the masters of detective fiction, and The Maltese Falcon (first published in 1930) is perhaps his best-known work. He didn’t promise his readers that it would be a true-to-life story, but his background gives him a lot of credibility, don’t you think?

The first thing you need to know about The Maltese Falcon is that it is told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Hammett doesn’t describe (or even hint at) any of the characters’ internal worlds, thoughts, or feelings. It’s up to the reader to guess for themselves each character’s motivations and secrets, based purely on his descriptions of what they say and do. Hammett took this style of writing to a new post-Hemingway extreme, and I know this next comment might be controversial, but I stand by it: Hammett does it way better than Papa ever did.

Plus, it’s a really clever approach to writing a detective fiction novel when you think about it. Without too much effort on Hammett’s part, he’s able to keep the reader guessing, and he doesn’t have to tie himself up in knots to keep a character’s internal monologue from giving away the ending.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to offer a boilerplate spoiler warning, too; The Maltese Falcon is a mystery novel, after all. I find it practically impossible to properly discuss or review a book without spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out whodunnit.



There’s a lot of mini-mysteries within this book, a lot of red herrings and blind paths. Despite its paltry page count, it’s a rather intricate story of double- and triple-crossings. So, that makes it kind of hard to break down – I’ll do my darnedest!

The big dick is Sam Spade, a private detective working in San Francisco, with his business partner Miles Archer. And I do mean “big dick”, in every sense of the word; it’s the 1930s, he’s the boss, so it’s very old school with lots of calling secretaries in tight dresses “darling” and stuff like that.

Spade and Archer are going about their usual business when in comes one Miss Wonderly, and wants a guy followed. She says Floyd Thursby ran off with her sister, and she wants them to keep an eye on him. They take the job, and Archer takes the first shift on the guy’s tail.

Later that night, Archer is found dead, and shortly thereafter Thursby is found dead, too. Sam Spade becomes the prime suspect in both murders, as it turns out he was shagging Archer’s wife on the side, and Miss Wonderly wasn’t entirely honest about her reasons for wanting Thursby followed…

Miss Wonderly confesses that she’s using a fake name (no kidding). She’s actually an “acquisitive adventuress” by the name of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, She’s tied up in an international hunt for a treasure they call the Maltese Falcon (thus, the title).

Then, we get some back-story: in the 16th century, the knights of Malta made a statue of gold and jewels to present as a gift to the King of Spain, but it was intercepted and stolen by pirates. The statue passed from owner to owner over the years, and one of them covered it in black enamel to conceal its true value from would-be thieves. A man by the name of Casper Gutman had been tracing the history of the Maltese Falcon for years, and when he found out it was in the possession of a Russian exile living in Constantinople, he paid Brigid O’Shaughnessy to secure it for him.



Brigid worked with Thursby, and another bloke called Joel Cairo (who Hammett only ever describes as being Greek and gay, we don’t really learn anything else about him). They managed to get the falcon off the Russian, but Brigid’s no fool; she realised how much the thing was worth, and decided to cash in. She hid it on a ship that was setting sail for San Francisco, then she and Thursby went on ahead, planning to meet it there. Gutman, meanwhile, none too pleased with his prize being whipped out from under his nose like that, followed hot on their heels, and enlisted the services of a vicious gunman called Wilmer Cook.

It takes Sam Spade a while to piece this story together, especially seeing as he starts shagging Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she’s determined he find out as little as possible. Sex is a good way to stop a detective asking questions, I suppose, but it only works for so long. Plus, they’ve both got cops coming at them from all directions, because they know something smells funny with this whole deal (and there’s the unsolved murders of Thursby and Archer hanging over their heads).

The Maltese Falcon falls into Spade’s possession when a wounded ship captain stumbles into his office, hands it over, and promptly dies. It seems like a stroke of very good luck, and I think that’s the only way Hammett could think of to keep the story moving forward. Spade’s a real mensch, though, and he doesn’t seem at all tempted to keep the falcon for himself… but he’s not quite so high-and-mighty that he doesn’t use it to negotiate a good deal.

Spade outsmarts O’Shaughnessy, Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo at every turn. He ends up getting them to agree to pay him $10,000 for the falcon, and use Wilmer as the fall-guy into the bargain (seeing as, Spade explains, they’ll need someone to take the rap for all the murders, and Wilmer is a real arsehole so it might as well be him). Happy ending, right?



Wrong! The falcon, it turns out, is a fake! *Gasps*

Wilmer escapes, seeing no reason to hang around and take the fall for murders now. Gutman and Cairo decide to keep searching for the real falcon together, and off they trot. O’Shaughnessy starts planning a new life for herself with her new boyfriend Spade… only our big dick has put on his detective hat, and he’s worked out it was she who killed Archer and Thursby, back when this whole thing kicked off. He’s had a bloody gut-full of the lot of them, to be honest. He turns snitch, handing them all over to the cops, and wipes his hands clean. The story ends with Spade back in his office, back to normal, and Archer’s widow showing up to “talk”…

And there we have it: a twisty-turny detective mystery thriller, with a hint of the hunt for pirate treasure and a bare-bones love story to keep things interesting.

It’s a surprisingly Woke book (tight-dressed “darling” secretaries and reductive gay representation aside), given the time period in which it was written. The female characters were surprisingly complex, even if they were objectified at every turn. Hammett was a pretty cool dude, and he devoted much of his life to left-wing activism and anti-fascist movements. Those philosophies clearly seeped into his work, which is markedly absent the racism and brutal sexism of so many other books of that era.

Spade is an amalgamation of all those hard-nosed detective tropes we know and love: cold, detached, observant, ruthless, unsentimental, determined, with a keen sense of justice and a willingness to bend the rules to see it administered. There was endless speculation, upon release of The Maltese Falcon and a handful of lesser-known short stories also featuring the character, that Spade was based on a real-life detective that Hammett had encountered in his former work, but he vehemently denied it.

“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.”

Dashiell hammett

I only realised later that this book was the basis of the 1941 film noir classic of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart, which is perfect casting – as I was reading, I kept picturing Spade as a Bogart-esque figure. There have been a few other film adaptations made since then as well, but that one remains the best, according to basically every film critic ever.

The Maltese Falcon is formulaic, by today’s standards, but it’s also fast and fun to read. It’s not particularly challenging, but you do need to focus your attention, because it moves fast and it’s a short book to begin with. There’s not a lot of room for your mind to wander between plot points! Keep your wits about you, or you’ll lose track of what’s going on and where allegiances lie in the hunt for this golden bird statue…

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maltese Falcon:

  • “Awesome very different than the movie Bogart character was BLONDE!” – Debra Anderson
  • “Didn’t care for this book too much. Sam Spade is not a nice guy. Nuts to him.” – Phillip Marlowe
  • “classic af
    love living in San Francisco and I can literally visit the spots that are in the book. . .with this being said hire me someone! Marketing – is me at this time..” – Louis Quinteros
  • “Holy crap, if people were really this stupid in the early 20th century it’s surprising the human race has developed to the level it is in now. The characters are all dumb dumbs even the supposed bright private investigator is a dumb dumb. The book plays out like a boring episode of Scooby Doo if the characters were all victims of self inflicted anoxic brain injuries patients from trying to breath under waters.
    The ending which is supposed to be dramatic (I guess?..) is really dull and leaves me yelling at Sam the detective to shut up and call the police to arrest the woman already, but no it plays out like this: Semi-Spoiler Alert:

    Dumb detective: “I don’t know if I love you or not, sure we’ve known each other less than a week and may have banged once. Maybe that is love, maybe it isn’t. Don Draper from Mad Men isn’t alive yet to use creative marketing to tell us what love is. So like I said how can I know for sure if we’re in love?”
    Dumb Lady: “Oh Sam, I do love you, sure your contemplating calling the police because I straight up murdered your business partner and royally screwed over the other criminals I was working with but, I would never do that to you…”
    Dumb Detective: “That maybe, but I still don’t know if I can trust you. I think the best thing will be to still arrest you, maybe when you get out of jail, if you don’t get the death penalty, we can be a couple because that seems like the reasonable and responsible thing to do. Especially since I’ve known you for a week and you murdered my business partner and pretty much lied since we met.”
    Dumb Lady: “I guess.”

    The End” – Todd K.


The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Well, well, well: wasn’t this a pleasant surprise? When I picked up this copy of The Grapes Of Wrath (another secondhand bargain, once belonging to a “William Lang” who was kind enough to keep it in pretty good nick for me), I didn’t have high hopes. I’d just read two white-men-talking-to-each-other-about-power stories back-to-back (reviews here and here), and I figured I’d be in for more of the same. But, once again, this project up-ends my expectations: I loved Steinbeck’s story, more than I could have imagined! I think it’s another happy coincidence, coming to a book at the right time; this story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world.

Steinbeck was no slouch in the writing game. The Grapes Of Wrath took home a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The story begins with Tom Joad, a recent parolee, returning home to Oklahoma. On his way, he runs into Jim Casy, a former preacher, and they decide to travel together. When they make it to Tom’s family home, they find the farm deserted, and an old neighbour tells them that the Joad clan has gone to stay at another farm nearby, the banks having evicted almost everyone in the area.

In fact, the Joads – who are pretty much penniless, the Dust Bowl having destroyed their crops – are loading up a truck they intend to drive to California. They’ve heard there’s work aplenty there, and the pay is decent, so it seems as good an idea as any (and, well, they ain’t got a lot of options). Even though leaving Oklahoma will violate his parole, Tom jumps in with them, and convinces Jim to come along for the ride.



I was particularly impressed with the way Steinbeck used dialect. It felt very readable, fluid, natural – and even though he was effectively writing about “hicks” and “rednecks”, to use the pejorative terms, he didn’t once condescend to Southerners or make a spectacle of them.

The Joads quickly learn that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. They encounter many migrant groups living in makeshift camps along their route, all with horrible stories about the true nature of the life and work on Californian farms. One-by-one, the Joads start to exit the story: Grandpa dies, then Grandma (with poor old Ma Joad riding with her corpse in the back of the truck for hours before alerting the others, to ensure they made it to California without delay), eldest son Noah leaves them, and then Connie bolts too (he’s the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon – and yes, that’s her real given name, but she’s most often referred to as “Rosasharn”). Oh, and the dog dies. The Grapes Of Wrath is a pretty traumatic read, on the whole.

You might be thinking that Tom Joad is the hero of this story, but you’d be wrong. Ma Joad is the star of the show. She’s now one of my favourite characters in all of American literature. It’s under her leadership that the Joad family continues to seek work and make the best of their shitty circumstances. Pa Joad, the “head of the house”, is completely demoralised and basically useless, so Ma Joad takes the reins and does a damn fine job. They would have been completely screwed without her (well, they were still pretty screwed, but less so for Ma Joad being an incredible kick-arse matriarch).



Anyway, when they make it to California, they find a very saturated labour market, meaning most families are forced to work for a pittance and exploited to the point of literal starvation. Steinbeck really went all-out, he shat on capitalism from a great height. Jim Casy takes it upon himself to unionise the workers, co-ordinating a strike, but it all ends in tears when a police confrontation turns violent (Steinbeck also hated cops, it would seem). Tom witnesses Casy’s fatal beating, and takes his vengeance, killing the cop. He winds up back on the run, a murderous fugitive once again.

Ma Joad doesn’t let a little thing like her son’s homicidal tendencies slow them down. She makes Tom promise that he will use his lucky break, having escaped arrest, to fight for workers’ rights and end the oppression that is quite literally killing the working class. The Joads continue on, finding more work at a cotton farm, but this is a things-go-from-bad-to-worse story, so strap in. George R.R. Martin ain’t got nothin’ on Steinbeck, honestly – Georgie has a high body count, sure, but Steinbeck tortures and starves his characters in the most twisted of ways.

Rose Of Sharon’s bun in the oven dings, and she labours for hours on the floor of the shack they’re calling home. Her baby, sadly, is stillborn. I had literal tears welling in my eyes; I’m normally a tough nut to crack, but these scenes were absolutely devastating. Ma Joad holds it together (because of course she does) and lucky she does, because an almighty storm blows up and floodwaters inundate the area. The family has to bail on the shack, and seek shelter in a barn up the road. There, they find a young boy and his father, also not in a good way. The young boy is dying, he hasn’t eaten in forever, and Rose of Sharon – at Ma Joad’s prompting – offers him her breastmilk, saving his life. It is truly one of the most haunting passages I have ever read. And also, it’s The End.



I felt like I’d been punched! The Grapes Of Wrath, with that fucking ending, was so damn good that I started getting angry. Why had no one in my life who had read it warned me what was coming?! Gah!

The only thing that soured my experience of reading this Great American Novel was finding out later that Steinbeck ripped off a woman (naturally). It would seem that he “borrowed” heavily from the notes of Farm Security Administration worker Sanora Babb, who was researching migrant families with a view to writing her own book in 1938. Her boss showed her work to Steinbeck, and the rest is why-do-women-keep-getting-screwed-over-and-over history. The publication and popularity of The Grapes Of Wrath scuppered any hopes that Babb had of getting her own work out there. Her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, and she died the following year.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Steinbeck also has his wife to thank for the book’s iconic title. He was struggling to come up with anything himself, then she suggested The Grapes Of Wrath, having read the phrase near the end of Chapter 25 where Steinbeck described the purposeful destruction of food to keep demand (and profits) high:

“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Chapter 25

And she nailed it: that line really captures what The Grapes Of Wrath is all about. It’s a story of the potential for a working class revolt, how the seeds of a revolution are sown. Steinbeck said that, in writing the novel, he wanted “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” (“this” being the Great Depression and its domino effect). That’s why the book has been so powerful and popular with supporters of the workers’ movement.



Its publication “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event”, later reports claimed. The Grapes Of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, and it was debated and discussed at length in all manner of public and private forums. Many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries attacked his social and political views as expressed through his story of the Joads, but he did not give one single fuck. All the controversy just led to more book sales.

The Grapes Of Wrath feels timeless, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can all find something familiar in a story about automation, and climate change, and the feelings of powerlessness and fear they inspire. Save for a few technological advancements, I would completely believe that this was a contemporary novel set in the present day. If you’re in the mood to say Fuck The Man! but also want to read a heart-wrenching and beautiful family story, you need to pick up a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath and get stuck in.

Note: The Grapes Of Wrath was SO GOOD that it made the cut for my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Grapes Of Wrath:

  • “My package arrived empty. I would like a refund, but have nothing to return.” – Amie Majerus
  • “I had to read this book in high school. I hope English teachers aren’t still forcing teenagers to read this book, but they probably are. I still think about the ending sometimes and wonder if there was something wrong with John Steinbeck.” – Janette
  • “Bought this book thinking I would learn how to make a nice bitter wine for a get together for me and my gal pals… But it’s just a book about people traveling in the depression. I was expecting some grapes being angry. Also there are no grapes in this book whatsoever!!” – Amazon Customer
  • “I have been reading books that won Pulitzer prizes. I’m very happy with most of them. This one is terrible. The author, John Steinbeck, commented “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Thanks for nothing. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags. And that’s why I give this book the lowest possible score.



    The point of the story is that rich bastards are bastards. Got it. Agreed. Bastards are bastards. Got it. I don’t want to go on this journey. It’s like the old Mr. Bill skits on Saturday Nite Live. Do you remember Mr. Bill? Everything horrible happens to Mr. Bill. That’s what this book is. Mr. Bill.

    

I will happily join your revolution but I will not read your book to the end. It’s too messed up. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags.” – LF

  • “One of the boringest published novels I’ve ever laid eyes on.” – C. Cross
  • “So, I’m only on page 478 of 619, but I’ve been disgusted at the amount of profanity. So far I’ve found more than 500 uses of profanity! On average every page (with relatively big writing, even) has more than one swear. Yikes!

    

I’m never going to read Grapes of Wrath again, and won’t be recommending it to anyone.

If you don’t like profanity, be careful.” – Jef4Jesus

  • “This book was 600 pages written purly about a bunch of hicks from Oklahoma starving. Thanks, but no thanks,” – M. Landis

P.S. Never forget this pearler of a tweet from publisher Antonio French during the Trump campaign:


All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

It’s been a while since I visited the American South in literature. I think my last sojourn was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, some time ago. That’s how I came to reach for All The King’s Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winner by Robert Penn Warren in 1946. I was actually surprised, looking at the inside cover, to find it was written so long ago; it reads like a far more contemporary novel and as recently as 2006 the New York Times called it “the definitive novel about American politics” (though, that was pre-Trump, so it’d be understandable if their position has changed).

Our narrator is Jack Burden, a former history student and newspaper columnist turned personal aide. He recounts for us the meteoric rise of Governor Willie Stark in the American South in the 1930s. He’s fascinated, and at times disgusted, by the larger-than-life populist leader. Stark transforms over the course of the novel from idealistic lawyer to hardened (and extremely powerful) politico. Burden faithfully documents the evolution of “The Boss”, and the role of his doctor friend Adam Stanton, who is not-very-subtly painted as the polar opposite of Stark. Stanton is the man of ideals, the angel on one shoulder, while Stark is the pragmatic and corrupt devil on the other.

The chapters are loooooong, and intense. Warren really doesn’t give the reader many opportunities to pause and catch their breath. He also uses decidedly non-chronological storytelling, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (think more Mrs Dalloway than The Narrow Road To The Deep North). Warren uses the shifts in time to highlight the connections between characters and continuities in their stories, how Burden and Stark and Stanton’s lives all weave together. That means there are a few stories-within-the-story, most notably a detailed history of Jack’s uncle (whom he researched in pursuit of his American History degree), and also Jack’s own life (which he tells, bizarrely, in the third person). Jack wouldn’t have been much fun at parties, actually, with his penchant for endless nihilistic philosophising. It takes the deaths of a few of his mates, and his biological father, for him to even contemplate the notion that he has to take some personal responsibility for what happens in his life, instead of attributing it all to what he calls “the Great Twitch”. That said, some of his introspective bullshit was actually quite funny:

“‘Can I see the cutting?’ I asked. I felt all of a sudden that I had to see it. I had never seen an operation. As a newspaperman, I had seen three hangings and one electrocution, but they are different. In a hanging you do not change a man’s personality. You just change the length of his neck and give him a quizzical expression, and in an electrocution you just cook some bouncing meat in a wholesale lot. But this operation was going to be more radical even than what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. So I asked could I see the operation.”

pg. 477




All The King’s Men is very dude-centric, if that’s not already obvious: it fails the Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion, with nearly 700 pages of white dudes talking to one another about power, clapping themselves on the back for gaining power, and ever-striving to become more powerful than some other white dude. There are a couple of love interests and mistresses, and these are the only appropriate roles for women in that world, it would seem. Jack devotes quite a long passage to his regret at never having fucked his first love, and of his wife he simply says “Goodbye Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you,” (pg. 462).

Warren fills the hole where the women should be by making a Very Big Deal of biological paternity, and how one’s father affects one’s sense of identity and morality. It’s central to every plot-line and character arc; the book would perhaps be more accurately called All The King’s Daddy Issues. Stark, in becoming a Governor through patronage and intimidation, becomes a surrogate father for all of them: deeply flawed, but influential, and impossible to ignore or reject. The thrust of the story, it would seem, is that Jack comes to realise that no man or father (not the man who raised him, not his bio dad, not Willie Stark) is invulnerable to corruption or temptation. Oh, and it’s impossible to remain a passive observer of anything, no matter how hard you try. Whatever you do, it will catch up with you, etc. Such profound, very wow…



The character of Stark is famously rumoured to have been inspired by the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that All The King’s Men was “never intended to be a book about politics” (fucking lol, alright mate, odd choice of subject matter then).

There’s a surprisingly happy ending, all things considered. Yes, there’s a lot of death and bloodshed, but Jack gets the girl, reconciles with his father(s), and carries on living the good life. I was expecting something far more bleak, but Warren managed to pull a Happily Ever After out of his hat.

Tl;dr? A bunch of white dudes chase political power in the Great Depression-era American South, in the hopes that it will help them all overcome their Daddy Issues (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work).

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The King’s Men:

  • “I am a business professor so the long involved descriptions of his angst drove me crazy.” – CP
  • “Somewhat tedious” – Carol Weidensaul
  • “Greek drama set in depression era Louisiana. Sad,” – Martha Failing
  • “This edition appeared to have been translated by a child. I got a real book from the public library. Very disappointed.” – Gwen Luikart
  • “Thought it stunk.” – Barbara J Mason
  • “Had to read this for my AP English class. -10/10 stars, would not recommend, take regular english instead.” – Emmy
  • “I AM ALSO A TINA FRIEND AND HER INSIGHTFUL AND TRUE COMMENTS INTO THIS MONSTROSITY OF A BOOK MAKE ME PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!” – A customer


Divergent – Veronica Roth

I know there’s still a lot of ingrained snobbery and elitism that causes some readers to look down their noses at young adult books, but it’s hard to argue with the power of a juggernaut like Divergent, whatever you might think of the genre. It was a New York Times Best Seller (a couple times over, actually), and a Goodreads Choice Awards winner (Favourite Book Of The Year in 2011). According to Publisher’s Weekly, the combined three volumes of the series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 alone. Whatever we might think of it, clearly Veronica Roth’s dystopian world has captured more than a few minds and hearts…

So, just to be clear, I’m reviewing the first book in the Divergent series (also, confusingly, called Divergent), a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels (it’s followed by Insurgent, then Allegiant) set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth’s meteoric rise is all the more enviable when you learn that Divergent was published less than a year after she earned a degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University; in fact, she’d sold the film rights before she’d even graduated. But don’t let the green-eyed monster overtake you just yet, my honest review is still to come…

See, Divergent doesn’t exactly start strong (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t improve much along the way). Roth opens her story with the old protagonist-examines-her-reflection-in-the-mirror trope, ugh. She gives some kind of half-arsed explanation as to why she’s only allowed to look in the mirror once a month or something, but it still irked me. It’s such a lazy way for a writer to “show” the reader what a narrator looks like, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This central character, Beatrice (well, “Tris”, as she’s later known), and her family are among the survivors of some unspecified apocalyptic event (and yes, it’s extremely frustrating that Roth doesn’t give us any more details on the back-story, but that’s the least of our problems here). What we do know is that everyone is now divided into five “factions”, based on their dispositions and inclinations. The Abnegation are the selfless ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Erudite are the smart ones. They’re kind of like the castes in Brave New World, but not quite so hierarchical; each faction has a different role to play in society, and theoretically they should all work together in harmony.



Kids are raised in the faction of their parents (in Tris’s case, Abnegation) until they turn sixteen, at which point they are given an “aptitude” test and forced to choose a permanent faction for themselves at the creatively-named Choosing Ceremony. No, I’m not kidding. Anyone who doesn’t complete initiation into their new faction becomes “factionless” (the creativity just keeps on coming), and is forced to live in poverty on the streets, reliant on charity to survive. Tris’s aptitude test shows that she could belong to any one of three factions, and thus she is “divergent”. An early warning: do not attempt to turn this into a drinking game by doing a shot every time someone uses the word “divergent”, because you will die. Tris pretty much whacks you over the head with her divergence for the rest of the book.

The test administrator warns her to keep her divergence under her hat, so Tris takes her word for it and acts like she’s normal. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction, much to her parents’ dismay, and her brother simultaneously fucks off to the Erudite (so a double-whammy for Abnegation).

Tris’s instructor at the Dauntless compound is “Four”. Roth said he was originally the protagonist in her first draft of the novel, but she switched to Tris’s perspective because she felt it “worked better”. Four tells Tris and the rest of the Dauntless initiates that they’ll be tested again and again, and only the top ten candidates will be accepted into the faction. The guy’s welcome speech could use some work, tbh.



You can smell the relationships forming a mile off, they’re all very predictable. Tris befriends some of her fellow transfer initiates (Christina, Al, and Will), comes into conflict with others (Peter, Drew, and Molly), and falls head over heels in love with Four. And later on, one of her chosen friends betrays her. It’s all rather uninspired and cliche, but we persist!

It turns out that these “tests” for the Dauntless initiates are mostly a series of drug-induced hallucinations while they’re hooked up to technological gizmos. They’re forced to face their worst fears in a simulation, and beat them. Roth said she was inspired in part by learning about exposure therapy in an introductory psychology course. Important note: this is a very gross misrepresentation of what exposure therapy is actually about, and how it works for people with phobias and other anxiety disorders. If Roth has scared anyone off seeking treatment with this story, I will be very, very cross.

Anyway, Tris’s divergent abilities actually give her an advantage in this fucked-up testing scenario, and she (quite rightly) exploits it to make sure she gets that top ten ranking. But of course, no one likes a kiss arse, so the other initiates attack her and do their best to take her down a peg.



Meanwhile, in Grown Up World, the Erudite faction are stirring dissent against Abnegation. See, the selfless ones were given the role of governing the city, because they’re so selfless and all, but the clever ones are pretty fed up with that situation. They accuse the Abnegation leaders of abusing their children (and Four brings Tris into one of his fear simulation thingos, revealing that he was indeed abused by his Abnegation father, so not everything the Erudite are saying is fake news). The dispute reaches crisis point when the Erudite inject all of the Dauntless with a serum that allows them to be controlled in one giant simulation. The Erudite mobilise them as an army, stage a coup, and take down the Abnegation.

To put this in terms everyone will understand, let’s highlight a few of the very obvious Harry Potter parallels: in the Divergent world, the Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws (who are actually just clever Slytherins in disguise) gang up on the Hufflepuffs. You following?

It turns out that the Erudite serum doesn’t actually work on divergent members of the faction, which is why the test administrator encouraged Tris to keep it to herself; if she can’t be controlled, she’s a threat to the system and the whole Erudite plot to gain power. The divergent kids, led by Tris and Four (oh yeah, turns out her boyfriend is also divergent, vomit), rebel against the Erudite, uniting to disable the simulation. Once that’s handle, they escape to the Amity compound – that’s the nice faction, remember them? They don’t get much of a look-in in the story otherwise. Both of Tris’s parents are killed in the fight, the military conflict remains unresolved, and that’s where Divergent ends. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the next book (duh).



I think my feelings have been made abundantly clear already, but just in case, I’ll say it straight: the writing isn’t good. It’s full of lines like this:

“I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery.”

Divergent (p. 96)

I mean, come on! Tris gets sweaty palms, a lot. As in she mentions it on practically every page, and it really wears thin very early on. There’s also a lot of references to necks, and a lot of chapters and sections that start with “the next morning”. I thought initially that Divergent must have been self-published, without professional editing, because really this is the type of shit that would have been picked up by even a first-time editor. But nope! This book went through the full rigors of Harper Collins’s editorial process, and still came out this way. *shrugs*

If you think I’m being too persnickety, let’s take a step back and look at Divergent more broadly: it really doesn’t break any new ground. A young adult book that explores an adolescent’s relationship to adults and authority in a dystopian future is hardly revolutionary. Tris’s whole character arc is simply coming of age through a series of choices, always between conforming and choosing her own path – nothing new there, either. I read one review that sung the praises of how Roth “critiqued the illusion of democracy” (whereby citizens are able to “choose” which faction they join but are indoctrinated through the initiation process regardless of what they choose), but that seems to be an optimistically retro-fitted analysis at best. Roth really doesn’t explore that idea at all; it seemed to me more of a convenient plot point to get everyone divided into groups, given that the idea of a Sorting Hat was already taken.



The religious overtones are interesting, though. Roth says in the first sentence of her Author Acknowledgements: “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension”, so she’s clearly down with the Squad. There’s a very clear Point(TM) in the intellectual Erudite (read: genetics researchers, stem-cell harvesters, Galileo, etc.) being painted as control-hungry villains, pitted against the righteous, pious, and persecuted Abnegation. It gives me really bad vibes, actually. I mean the Erudites, who are clearly coded as academics and experts, are the “evil” ones, and in the world of Trump and Brexit it seems to reinforce a particularly scary position that experts are part of some kind of conspiracy to screw the everyman. I’m not sure if Roth intended to write a conservative religious call-to-arms, but that’s how it came across to me.

I’m not much good at content warnings, but Divergent probably warrants a few. There’s a lot of violence (including some sexualised violence), a major suicide as a plot point, and plenty of other distressing shit. This makes it all the more baffling that it’s recommended reading for young adolescents – why are we so much more willing to let kids read about men killing each other than we are men kissing each other? It’s a more confronting, more violent version of The Hunger Games. I know it’s gross to lump all female-protagonist-dystopian-future-YA novels into the same basket, but in this case they really are very similar on a lot of levels. I’ve also heard Divergent has a lot in common with The Maze Runner, and I guess it does (in that they’re pretty much equally not to my taste).

As I was putting together this review, I started to feel really guilty that I didn’t like Divergent more, like I was doing a disservice by hanging shit on something that legions of young readers really love. I promise, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, and if you enjoyed Divergent, power to you! No hard feelings! It’s just not for me. I couldn’t help but laugh at times at how truly bad I found it. The film adaptation was no better. I thought it was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fans Roth has won herself around the world, and the power that a beloved series like this can have in ensuring the continuing literacy of younger generations. (Please forgive me for how old that makes me sound!) As I said in the beginnings, elitists and snobs might look down their noses at a series like this, but I’m not one of them. I won’t be reading any more of Roth’s work, but I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Divergent:

  • “Funny as he’ll” – derrick
  • “thia is the sort of series tat doesnt deserve a 3 star rting its so bad sory for bad typing I am uinf a small kindle in bed.” – S. Berestizhevsky
  • “Cool I get to be review 44,444. 4s are my lucky number.

    

Anyway. I guess I am Divergent because this book is just…bad. I couldn’t get through more than 100 pages. It never got better. The premise is just, dumb. It’s basically a rip-off of the sorting hat from Harry Potter mixed with Hunger Games without all the action. The protagonist is supposedly the only person with a mind of her own in the entire book (besides some of the poor homeless/blue-collar workers who we should feel SO sorry for and look down on, in spite of them making up most of our actual society). She is labeled “divergent”, which is unspeakable. And basically, she doesn’t fit in. Poor girl. That’s about it. I don’t know why I even gave it two stars. I guess I’m feeling generous.



    I read that this book was written in a month. Sounds about right.” – Kristen

  • “Oh boy how to begin? This book is garbage! Utter garbage. I’m sorry, this review is literally better written than this book. Don’t waste your money. Also don’t buy books go to a library they’re dying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Daughter disappointed dont know why” – Amazon Customer


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