Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation

She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

This week’s selection from my reading list is a little treat for myself – it’s been a long year! And I’ve been wanting to read She Came To Stay for ages. It’s been sitting on my shelf tempting me, like a bottle of fine wine. I guess I was just waiting for The Right Moment(TM) to properly enjoy it, and as the year draws to a close, I can happily announce that the moment has finally come.

I was fairly confident that I’d find something of interest in She Came To Stay (or, in the original French, L’Invitée). It was renowned feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, published in 1943, a fictional account of her and Jean-Paul Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakievicz (to whom the book is dedicated). This will hardly come as a shock, but it turns out de Beauvoir had some hard feelings about the 17-year-old who “came between” her and Sartre, the love of her life, and in many ways She Came To Stay is her act of revenge. So, it’s already ticking a few boxes: feminism, thinly veiled autobiographical plot, and a tumultuous polygamous relationship. Goodie!

My only quibble with this edition is that it’s a bit of a #namethetranslator fail. The only information I could find was printed, in teeny tiny font, on the Copyright page: “This translation was first published by Secker & Warburg and Lindsay Drummond in 1949”, but as best I can tell, from what’s Google-able, the actual work of translation was done by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse. Do better, Harper Perennial!

But on with the story: She Came To Stay is set in Paris, around the time of WWII. A young, naive couple – Francoise and Pierre – are very proudly bohemian. They write, they’re in The Theater, and they have an “open” relationship (though it’s “unthinkable that they should ever tire of each other”). All of that is put to the test when Xaviere comes flouncing in. Basically, She Came To Stay is a cautionary tale about the dangers of poorly-planned polyamory, especially if you’re French and the teenager you take on as a third is a hot mess.



The character motivations are really complex, and hard to wrap your head around at times. Xaviere seemed like a real chore, to put it mildly – I struggled to understand why they kept her around at all. I’m guessing she was really-really-really-ridiculously-good-looking, but de Beauvoir doesn’t actually describe her physicality all that much, one of the many perks of reading books about women by women! I’m still not entirely sure I ever figured them out. Francoise and Pierre’s relationship is hardly healthy to begin with, but when Xaviere joins them, it goes from bad to worse. They’re exploitative, they’re voyeuristic, and they seem to really get off on emotionally abusing one another – it’s all very confronting.

There’s some timelessness to the broader themes, though. True to her reputation, de Beauvoir explored all kinds of existentialist philosophy, ideas of freedom, dependence, sexuality, and “the other”. If you’re not across your existentialist philosophising (hey, no judgement – it’d been a while for me, too!), it’s all about finding the self and the meaning of life through exploring the bounds of free will and personal responsibility. If those ideas grab you, then you’re going to want to give this book a go, because it’s got them all in spades.

de Beauvoir went to great lengths to impress upon the reader that Francoise always came second, in Pierre’s mind, to Xaviere – even though Francoise didn’t seem to realise it herself. The poor lamb falls into the trap of trying to be the “cool girl”, as most modern women do at some point in their lives. She lets his work take precedence, his sexual desires dominate, and she doesn’t dare tell him off (even when he’s being a huge prick). It’s not simple subservience, though. This notion of being “free”, being “open minded”, is a central tenant of Francoise’s identity. She’s not willing to sacrifice that for a silly little thing like emotional security.



Xaviere is unspeakably manipulative, so it’s a testament to Francoise’s strength of will that she’s able to put up with her for longer than five minutes. The teenage strumpet goes above and beyond to drive a wedge between Francoise and Pierre, and for a good two-thirds of the novel she has them dancing on her strings.

By all accounts, these relationship dynamics are the same as those that played out in de Beauvoir’s real-life ménage à trois. She and Sartre purported to value freedom and openness above all else, but clearly that didn’t work out, because she ended up writing She Came To Stay as a way of “dealing with” (her words!) the trauma of Sartre’s affair. This book is basically her equivalent of Taylor Swift’s reputation album.

I really wanted to like it. I was expecting another Jane Eyre or The Bell Jar. But, for the most part, She Came To Stay was just good. Not rush-out-into-the-street-and-shout-about-it good, just good enough to keep going. I felt like it was a bit too long; after just 150 pages, I was wondering where on earth it could possibly go, so the final sections dragged a bit. And the “shock twist ending” was kind of lost on me, I’m sorry to say. In a rare moment of fancy-pants literary high-mindedness, I assumed Francoise was being metaphorical when she (SPOILER ALERT!) described killing Xaviere. You know, I assumed it was a flight of fancy, killing the idea of Xaviere, rather than actually doing it. Not so, it turns out, and I only learned that later, reading up on the book to write this review. Whoops!



In some ways, though, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Francoise finishes off Xaviere to reclaim her own power, and to prove she’s no one’s second choice. In real life, de Beauvoir wrote this book to prove that she shouldn’t come second, either. Right? Maybe I’m stretching. The real-life story has a much happier ending, anyway, you’ll be pleased to know. de Beauvoir and Sartre stuck it out through the Olga years; they remained lovers, companions, and mutual editors until he passed away in 1980. de Beauvoir is now buried alongside him in Montparnasse, where they lived together for most of their lives. And she had a little fun of her own on the side, too; she had a long-running affair with American writer Nelson Algren, but her loyalty to Sartre, and her refusal to leave him, was the cause of its breakdown.

She Came To Stay isn’t Simone de Beauvoir’s best-known work, but I’m glad it was the one I started with. I’ll be reviewing her magnum opus, The Second Sex, here on Keeping Up With The Penguins soon: it’s a hugely-influential account of the status and nature of women in the mid-20th century, and it’s pretty much the reason we remember de Beauvoir as a pioneer of post-war feminism. And, for balance, I’ll be reviewing a collection of Sartre’s essays, too. Stay tuned…!

My favourite Amazon reviews of She Came To Stay:

  • “Nice reading, pages run quickly for a mediocre reader.” – 17a8m9a
  • “Book about pretentious Parisian snobs which somehow works out to be a most enjoyable and engaging read! Highly recommended. Loved the ending” – Petrarch’sGirl

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

There are a handful of really chunky books on my original reading list, and this is one of them: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It seems like an age since I tackled any book even close to this long (David Copperfield was probably the only one that came close). I made sure to allot plenty of time and brain space for these 982 pages (plus introductory essays and notes). And I’m glad I did; it felt really good to immerse myself properly in Cervantes’ world, and stick with the one story for a while.

Don Quixote (original title: “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha”) was published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, with the first English translations appearing in 1612 and 1620, respectively. That makes it one of the oldest books in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, as well as one of the longest. It’s widely considered to be one of the most influential works of the literary canon, a foundational piece of modern Western literature. Don Quixote was officially deemed the Greatest Book Of All Time by the Nobel Institute, the various editions have sold in excess of 500 million copies worldwide, and this particular translation from John Rutherford won the 2002 Premio Valle Inclán Prize for Translation. Not bad, given that Cervantes was basically unknown before the first part was published, and spent much of his life on the run (he escaped prison – not once, not twice, but four times total).

The premise is this: a member of the lesser Spanish nobility (a “hidalgo”), Alonso Quixano, becomes unhealthily obsessed with chivalric romances. He takes it into his head to become a “knight-errant”, roaming the country performing acts of chivalry under the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. He ropes in Sancho Panza, a simple farmer with champagne dreams and a beer budget, to work as his squire. The book forms an interesting bridge between the early medieval romances, which were episodic and strung together a series of adventures with the same characters, and later modern novels, which focused more on the psychological evolution of its characters and their internal worlds. In Don Quixote, Cervantes managed to do both.


It all feels surprisingly familiar. Even the chapter titles sound like episodes of Friends: “Chapter III which relates the amusing way in which Don Quixote had himself knighted”, and so on. Cervantes certainly didn’t have any designs on founding the Western literary canon or anything of the sort. He just wanted to write a fun story that would give people a laugh or two, which is probably why his story is still so widely accessible and enjoyable for today’s readers. Of course, our understanding of it has changed over time; at first, we read it as a comic novel, as Cervantes intended, but then we started to read it as a tragic statement on disillusionment in society after the French Revolution. Later, we came to appreciate Don Quixote as a critical social commentary, but now we’ve circled around to finding it funny again. That said, I must say I’m stuck in the 20th century as far as literary critique of this one goes; critics in that era came to view the story as a tragedy, where Don Quixote’s simple idealism is rendered useless by a harsh reality. Sure, there are plenty of quick quips and slapstick encounters, but really, the truth at the heart of the story is a real bummer.

As I read it, Don Quixote seemed to be suffering from a debilitating delusional disorder, and yet everyone in his world just humoured him as he lived out his imaginary life. He was a danger to himself and others, and in today’s world we’d almost certainly subject him to some kind of psychiatric hold and get him treatment. What’s worse, he pulled Sancho Panza down with him, in a heart-breaking foile à deux that sees them repeatedly beaten, half-starved, and living in itinerant poverty for most of the book. The humour, in my view, was particularly dark, given that this ageing man’s poor mental health was the butt of most of the jokes. I found it all horribly sad.


And, of course, it’s hopelessly and irretrievably sexist, a product of its time. Almost every bloke is chasing after some beautiful woman’s virginity, which he calls her “honour” or her “jewel”, treating it as some prize they earn for gross displays of machismo. And there’s a lot of Madonna/whore smack talk. Really, the only man who seems woke in any measure is Sancho Panza, believe it or not. He has no interest in oppressing women, he just wants to get rich and fat. I respect that. Sancho’s long-suffering wife was my favourite character in the whole book, too:

“‘… you do as you please, because that’s the burden we women were born with, obeying our husbands even if they are damn fools.'”

Teresa Cascajo (page 520)

I hope I’m not putting you off, though, because honestly Don Quixote wasn’t bad. I just feel compelled to share the alternative view, like I’m the lone port in a sea of “but it’s so funny!”.

I particularly enjoyed instances of Cervantes breaking the fourth wall; he was way ahead of his time in terms of being meta. His characters were aware that they were being written about, and he often made direct nods and call-outs to the reader. In Part One, he included many back-stories of minor characters, and then in Part Two, he outright apologised for his many digressions and promised the reader to focus on the matter at hand (while simultaneously whingeing that his “narrative muse” had been restrained – and never fear, he still managed to cram plenty of these hilarious digressions into the second party anyway). I heard that several abridged editions actually remove some or all of these extra tales, focusing exclusively on the central narrative. That’s a shame, because some of them are really good – so, if you’re going to read Don Quixote, make sure you go with the OG full-version.

Trying to summarise or explain the full plot of Don Quixote is a fool’s game, and I’m not going to try it here. Over the course of their travels, the dynamic duo meet innkeepers, sex workers, goat herders, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, and spurned lovers, and Quixote manages to turn each and every encounter into a chivalric adventure of some kind. As much as he loves to intervene and prevent injustice, he’s also kind of an entitled prick and often refuses to pay his debts, which results in many near-scrapes and public humiliations (with poor Sancho often bearing the brunt). In the end, Quixote is strong-armed into returning home to live out the rest of his life as he really is, Alfonso Quixano, and he dies (essentially of depression) in the final chapter. I told you, it’s a real bummer!


There are a lot of fun facts and trivia in Don Quixote‘s history, particularly when it comes to language and translation. Firstly, its widespread popularity is the main reason modern Spanish exists in its current form, which is no small feat for one humble comic novel. Within the text itself, there are actually two types of Spanish spoken: a contemporary version spoken by most of the characters, which more or less matches today’s language, and Old Castillian, used by Don Quixote. It’s kind of like having the main character of a book speak Shakespearean English, while the rest of them speak like you and me; indeed, that’s how most contemporary English translations tell the story.

We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of his early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase was translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”, meaning something more like “time will tell”. Really, we’ve spent a couple hundred years mistranslating Quixote, and now we’re spending another couple hundred trying to correct all those mistakes. There have been five new English translations published since 2000. Obviously, I can’t speak to all of them, but I think John Rutherford did a cracking job with this one, so I’d highly recommend first-timers pick it up (and, as always, don’t skip the introduction – it’s full of interesting background and context that will help you understand and enjoy the story).

Don Quixote is a great book to read bit-by-bit; you want to sip it like wine, not chug it like beer. I’m really glad I set a lot of time aside to enjoy it properly. I think binge-reading it would make the episodes feel really repetitive, or ridiculous, or both. Plus, through the magic of incremental effort, the 982 pages fly by, and you’ll feel silly for ever having been intimidated by this doorstop book. Give it a go, and hustle back here to reassure me that this tale of an ageing poor man’s mental illness is at least equally as tragic as it is comic (it can’t just be me!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Don Quixote:

  • “I never read it and thought it was about time. Now I know and I’m of the believe that Mr Quixote and President Trump are kissing cousins” – Amazon Customer
  • “IS TO BIG” – Amazon Customer
  • “it is too long and too old. i got into the parts where he was fighting but everything else was a bore” – jeff rack
  • “5 star book, 1 star kindle version. Book stops approximately half way through, like, in mid-sentence. Had to go to the paperback to finish.

    Like the movie “Saving Private Ryan” ending (spoiler alert) just before they actually find Private Ryan.

    Like the movie “The Martian” ending with the dude still on Mars.

    You get the idea.

    Lame.” – Fake Geddy Lee
  • “It is supposedly a great Spanish classic but it is as bad as Shakespear. I got very little out of it.” – George Fox
  • “What an awful book. An old madman cruising the countryside and dragging his poor servant with him. Just an awful book.” – Bruce E. Paris



The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

Before we begin this review, let’s all take a minute to appreciate how Jonas Jonasson has the best name for a writer! Love that alliteration! And now that the formalities are out of the way, we can take a look at his worldwide best-seller, The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared. I bought this copy at a funky little second-hand bookshop in Ballina over a year ago but I hadn’t opened it until now, and I’m glad I waited. I needed something funny and light after The Call Of The Wild (with less puppy torture!), and it sure did the trick!

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared was first published in its native Swedish (Hundraåringen som Kiev ut genom fönstret och försvann, don’t ask me to say it) in 2009. It was the best-selling book in Sweden the following year, and by mid-way through 2012 it had sold over three million copies worldwide. This is the edition translated by Rod Bradbury, but it looks like there are a few different English versions floating around; in fact, it’s been translated into 35 languages, all told.

The story starts on 2 May 2005, with Allan Karlsson sitting in his retirement home, contemplating the impending celebration of his one-hundredth birthday. Frustrated by the prohibition policy of the home, he decides (bugger it!) he’ll jump out the window.

He walks in his slippers to the nearest bus station. There, he meets a hoodlum who’s bursting for the loo, but can’t squeeze himself into the cubicle with his giant suitcase in tow. The young man asks Allan to hold the case for a minute while he relieves himself, but the centenarian carpes the heck out of the diem! He jumps onto a bus, suitcase in tow, and leaves the hoodlum holding his dick and looking confused.



Turns out, that suitcase is stuffed full of drug money, and Allan ends up on the run from the dealers (who are desperate to recover their funds) as well as the police (who just want to return the befuddled old man to his home). Unbeknownst to his pursuers, Allan is sharp as a tack, and has a wealth of life experience in slipping through clutches to draw upon.

Every other chapter or so gives us a flashback to an increasingly fantastic episode from Allan’s long life. We learn that he unintentionally helped to make the atom bomb, became drinking buddies with Harry S Truman, saved the life of General Franco, had dinner with Stalin, got held in a concentration camp with Albert Einstein’s less-intelligent brother, foiled an assassination plot against Winston Churchill… yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little for The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, but if you can’t do that, how do you ever have any fun! (He never met Hitler, though – thank goodness! I’m so sick of that trope.)



Allan really likes vodka, which makes him instantly relatable for me, and the matter-of-fact way in which his story is told had me howling with laughter:

“Finer folks disapproved of [Allan’s father], dating back to the time he had stood on the square in Flen and advocated for the use of contraceptives. For this offense, he was fined ten crowns, and relieved of the need to worry about the topic any further since Allan’s mother out of pure shame decided to ban any further entry to her person.”

p. 26

Of course, because I am who I am as a person, I couldn’t help contemplating a more morbid reading of the story, where Allan’s incredible history is actually a delusion, the product of some form of age-related dementia. I seriously considered that it might be the “shock twist ending” for a minute, but (thankfully) there was nothing in the book itself about it at all, and nothing in the reviews I read online afterwards. So, it would seem I’m the only one who would have such a bummer of an idea. This is why I can’t have nice things…

The One-Hundred-Year Old man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is not only great fun, it’s also easy to pick up and put down as needed. That makes it great for holidays and other busy periods where your attention might be diverted. There’s a Swedish movie version (and another American adaptation planned soon, I think); I watched it hoping it would recreate the magic, but no such luck. The humour definitely works best on the page. The good news is that Jonasson has also written four subsequent novels, including a direct sequel for this gem: The Accidental Further Adventures Of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man.

Tl;dr? The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is a European Forrest Gump, but better! It’s a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve named it as one of the books guaranteed to make you literally LOL, and I’ll be reaching for it any time I need a light read with a lot of laughs.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared:

  • “It was alright but I wasn’t happy with all the murder and crime stuff it talked about.” – Jackie H
  • “If you have someone in your life dealing with a difficult geriatric, this might be salve To help with the pain.” – Robert K Anderson
  • “It was fun to read. The old man made every that I didn’t expect. Ha ha ha ha ha ha was all that I want to say” – Young
  • “This story was beyond silly and the writing infantile. I tried and tried again to get into it but finally after about 30 pages I tossed it in the trash. I could have better spent my time cleaning out the glove box in my car.” – mike lucas
  • “characters lacked character. Story was hard to connect to.” – PJ
  • “For anyone that thinks they are too old to accomplish anything. I so enjoyed this book, even the history of other countries.” – J Panther
  • “Bo-owing!” – Ann Olsen


The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

I think I’ve seen The Alchemist under the arm of just about every hippie I’ve ever met… and I’ve never once asked any of them about it, for fear that it would “change my life” or “give me a new perspective” or “open my mind to spirituality” or some shit. Maybe that makes me a cynic, but so be it! The point is that, like most of the books on my original reading list, I knew very little about The Alchemist going in, but in service of my aim to Keep Up With The Penguins, I went in regardless.

The cover of this edition promises “a fable about following your dreams”, and I suppose it delivered, technically. Like any fable, it wasn’t a tough read, and I burned through it in just a few hours (the fastest I’ve finished any book for this project, as I recall). The Alchemist reads like a fairytale, with very simple and straightforward language; I wondered if it read the same way in the original Portuguese, but I guess I’ll never know.

Oh, yeah, a bit of background: Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author, and The Alchemist was originally written in Portuguese (“O Alquimista”). This version was translated into English by Alan R. Clarke, and it has been translated into some 70 other languages as of 2016.


Anyway, The Alchemist is an allegorical novel. It starts with an Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, having recurring dreams about finding treasure buried under the Egyptian pyramids (haven’t we all?). He stumbles across a Romani fortune-teller, who confirms his suspicion that the dream is prophetic – and believe you me, in my head I’m screaming “BUDDY, THIS IS NOT A GOOD PLAN!”, but he doesn’t hear me. Then he sits down to have a chat with a King disguised as a pauper, who tells him:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”

(So, The Secret totally ripped him off, but that’s not my business.)

Anyway, the rest of the book is pretty much Coelho reinforcing that rather trite philosophy, over and over again. Santiago’s journey to Egypt is a total shit-fight. He gets robbed, and has to work in a jewellery store for a year to make his money back. Then he makes his way through the desert, encountering mortal peril every step of the way and buddying up with a bloke who really wants to become an alchemist (don’t get excited, he’s not the titular character). They find an oasis, and there Santiago falls in love with a girl (conveniently forgetting all about the merchant’s daughter who he also “loved” back in Spain). He leaves her hanging to travel the rest of the way through the desert, and en route he meats The Actual Alchemist(TM), who teaches him to “listen to his heart” (very insight, much wise).

The two of them come within a bee’s dick of becoming collateral damage in a tribal war, and when Santiago finally makes it to the bloody pyramids, he gets the living shit beat out of him by a local gang. Then – awesome timing! – he has another “prophetic”  dream that tells him the stinking treasure is actually buried under a tree in his hometown. I swore, loudly, when I read that part.


I know, I know: it’s a beautiful story about overcoming obstacles and faith and persistence and all of that… but let’s be real, sometimes you’re better off just calling it a day and heading back to your sheep and the merchant’s daughter. Maybe that means you miss out on the treasure, but you get beaten and robbed and taken prisoner far less frequently.

Coelho wrote the book almost as quickly as I read it; it took him just two weeks, in 1987. He later explained that he was able to spew it out so quickly because the book was “already written in [his] soul”. And that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Coelho.

Maybe there’s something in his whole faith and persistence shtick, because The Alchemist’s success came from pretty humble beginnings. It was not an instant best-seller, by any stretch. Coelho first sold it to a small publishing house, who gave it a small print run in Brazil, but they ended up handing him back the rights because they figured they’d backed the wrong horse.

via GIPHY

But Coelho kept the hustle alive: he self-published, and fought the good fight, until finally – finally – his book took off in France, and became an “unexpected” best-seller in the mid ’90s. It’s a great testament to the power of word-of-mouth marketing, because this was pre-Facebook and (until he hit the big time) Coelho had no budget for any other publicity.

Given The Alchemist’s enduring (eventual) popularity, you might be surprised to learn it’s not yet been adapted for the big screen. Coelho was reluctant to sell the rights, believing that “a book has life of its own inside the reader’s mind” (or some hippie shit like that), and film adaptations rarely live up to the book. But, over time, he “opened his mind” to the possibility (and, I’d imagine, the piles of money offered that got bigger and bigger – even hippies can’t resist the lure of fat stacks). Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but the project stalled for several years. Then, in 2008, Harvey Weinstein announced that he had bought the rights and would produce the film himself. By 2015, he’d secured a director, and a lead actor, but then… well, yeah. Weinstein had some other shit going on. He ain’t going to be producing anything for a while. So, Coelho keeps the money, and he doesn’t have to see his magnum opus butchered on the big screen by a notorious sexual predator. Everyone’s a winner!

I can see why hippies love The Alchemist. I was right in my suspicion: there’s a lot of spirituality and listening to your heart and all that guff. I’m definitely too cynical for this book – or maybe the book is too earnest, whichever you prefer. As the New York Times said, it’s more self-help than literature. I’d describe it as The Secret meets The Divine Comedy. The main tick in its column is that it’s an all-ages read, as far as I can tell, so if you’re looking to cheer up a stressed-out kid this would be a good one to read out loud to them. If you’re reading it alone… well, at least it’ll be over quickly. And maybe you’re not dead inside like me, so you might even enjoy it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Alchemist:

  • “Really was expecting something life altering. My dog chewed up the book when I was 18 pages in and I should have let her finish….” – jane
  • “Too much words like all his books!” – george raven
  • “Meh. I’m going to finish it, but only because they said It couldn’t be done.” – Andy Robertson
  • “Follow Your Dreams. That’s it. Save your money for your dreams – nothing wrong with this book but no more uplifting than the Facebook posts your friends send for free.” – West Coast Dreamer
  • “Apparently, if you are a man, the world will arrange itself to make sure you are happy. If you are a woman, your job is to sit yourself at home and wait for your main to come back and fulfil you, no matter how long that takes, because that’s your job. You don’t get your own destiny, you get to deal with his….” – Alison
  • “My personal legend is complete and the sun is setting on the mountains to the north. My treasure is having been able to complete this stupid book and put it away forever.” – Laura WG
  • “What a sappy story. If you want to drink syrup, by all means read this book.” – Dixie Dome
  • “A novel for stoners. What a regrettable purchase.” – NJ

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There’s nothing better than reading winners back-to-back! Last week, I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and this week I had the pleasure of getting swept away by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I didn’t have high hopes: I mean, Russian literature is supposed to be super long and heavy and hard to read… plus, my copy was, well, a little worse for wear (another “pre-loved” edition lifted from my husband’s collection).

The introduction didn’t help matters, either. It was a little hard to follow, not having read Crime and Punishment (or, indeed, any of Dostoyevsky’s other works) before. Some parts were pretty salient, though:

“Few works of fiction have attracted so many widely diverging interpretations as Crime and Punishment. It has been seen as a detective novel, an attack on radical youth, a study in ‘alienation’ and criminal psychopathology, a work of prophecy (the attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II by the nihilist student Dmitry Karakozov took place while the book was at the printer’s, and some even saw the Tsar’s murder in 1881 as a fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s warning), an indictment of urban social conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, a religious epic and a proto-Nietzchean analysis of the ‘will to power’. It is, of course, all of these things – but it is more.”

Introduction (Crime And Punishment)

The fact is Crime and Punishment has been super-popular ever since the first installments were published in The Russian Messenger in 1866. No one seems to doubt its significance – but academics argue themselves hoarse about what Dostoyevsky was actually getting at. It’s a reasonable basis for my concerns, but I shouldn’t have been worried – I was hooked from the very first page. It just goes to show, not only should you not judge a book by its cover (especially when that cover is falling apart), but you also shouldn’t pay much mind to its reputation. The book you worry is going to be really dense and boring to read actually turns out to be… well, fan-fucking-tastic!

Let’s start with the premise, because it is wild: Crime and Punishment follows the story of ex-student Rodin Raskolnikov, living on a shoestring in St Petersburg. He formulates a plan to stop his sister marrying a rich man (whom she does not love) in order to support the family – he sees that as a kind of prostitution, so how to prevent such a crime? Well, kill a crotchety old pawn-broker and steal her cash, obviously!


Yes, it’s a super-flawed plan, and that makes for fantastic reading. Dostoyevsky employed a really revolutionary narrative technique (for the time), writing from a third-person perspective but focusing almost exclusively on the internal monologue of the protagonist. Raskolnikov is a bundle of nerves and anxiety, which makes him – and I know I shouldn’t say this, given that he is a literal axe murderer, but I don’t care – totally relatable! Crime and Punishment follows his moral dilemmas leading up to the murder(s), and his complete psychological denouement afterwards. It’s compelling stuff! Most of it is told through Raskolnikov talking to himself, but it still seems fast-paced and action-packed. That takes real talent, eh?

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over other organisms.”

p. 242

Apparently, Dostoyevsky wrote his original drafts with a focus on “the present question of drunkness… all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances”, and the original title was The Drunkards (well, he is Russian). But as he started to develop the character of Raskolnikov, and fleshed out the nature of his crime, the story took a turn. Dostoyevsky’s masterful narrative technique only emerged in the final draft, where he switched to third-person narration, and basically re-wrote the whole thing. I can only imagine what a slow and laborious process that must have been in the days before word processors… but all his hard work damn sure paid off.

Crime and Punishment is written in six parts, and it’s around Part Three that Dostoyevsky starts getting philosophical, sharing with us (through his characters) his thoughts on… well, crime and punishment, funnily enough. He picks apart all of the disastrous consequences of Raskolnikov’s “moral” murder. You could spend a lifetime analysing the philosophical questions raised by Crime and Punishment, but I think I’ll leave that up to the professors – KUWTP is hardly the place to dissect Dostoyevsky’s position on nihilism 😉


Even without the philosophical analysis, it’s impossible to write a simple plot summary that is both succinct and complete, because the novel is so deeply complex. But don’t let that fool you! That does not make it heavy, boring, or hard-to-follow (I’m now kicking myself for letting all those pre-conceived ideas put me off reading it for so long). The only valid forewarning I feel I need to give you is that this book is really 600 pages of “crime”, and only an epilogue or so of “punishment”. Whatever the title might have you believe, Dostoyevsky didn’t so much write about formal punishment of crime (in terms of the justice system and so forth), but rather the internal “punishment” stemming from Raskolnikov’s own conscience.

But enough heavy stuff! What I really want to impress upon you is how much fun this book is! It’s not at all what you’d expect.

“The companion who was the object of these reproaches was sitting on a chair and had the look of a man who badly wanted to sneeze, but could not for the life of him do so.”

p. 601

Crime and Punishment is officially a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. If you’re looking to delve deeper into Russian literature as some kind of project, you might want to start with Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (as Dostoyevsky said himself, “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat”), but if you’re simply curious and not put off by its bad reputation, pick it up today! As beat-up as this copy looks, I strongly recommend trying to get your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations but I can’t vouch for any of those, because the art of translation can make or break your enjoyment of a book. On top of that, the footnotes in this edition are great – helpful without going over the top. All in all, I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go – and I’m sure you will be too!

Note: I’m so confident that you’ll love Crime And Punishment that I included it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crime and Punishment:

  • “If this book doesn’t drive you to drink nothing will. I haven’t encountered this many melodramatic people in my entire life. Really, truly, one after another is dropping dead of guilt or shooting himself or going insane, or hating and loathing his friends and family and sweethearts, or,
    When all is copacetic, just drinking himself stupid. Let me do you a favour and save you a few hours: Man kills 2 women and then proceeds to feel guilty for 600 pages. If I could have killed him myself I would have!” – Geezer & Wife
  • “Can’t eat a classic” – Keith B Cruise
  • “This book was P to the double O P don’t waste your hard earned money on this piece of total and complete crap.” – Cecily
  • “This book manifest a many-eyed demon in your soul, who will proceed to tear the blindfold off your inner child’s face, exposing him to the blinding light of truth as he falls headlong into the abyss while madly clawing at the smoking pits that were one his pure, innocent eyes.” – Amazon Customer
  • I was determined to finish it because it is a classic. My question for the author would be “Were you determined to bore us to tears by constantly using 500 words when 100 would have sufficed?” Get thee to a gulag!” – Amazon Customer
     
     

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Confession: I’ve been a bit apprehensive about posting this review, simply because I’m not sure that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend justice. It is, quite frankly, one of the best books that I have ever read. Inside the front cover, there are three straight pages of adoring reviews, from the stock-standard “one of the greatest novelists of our time” from the New York Times, to the highly apt “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” from The Australian, to the best (and most creative): “Ferrante writes with the kind of power saved for weather systems with female names, sparing no one”, from the LA Times. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were over-stating things just a smidge… but they weren’t. Ferrante’s writing is just that damn good.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series of novels (published 2012-2015). It follows the lives of Elena Greco (the narrator) and Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, as they pull themselves up from their humble origins in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. This version is translated from the original Italian by translator Ann Goldstein – and damn, she did one hell of a job! She somehow retained the rolling lyricism of the original Italian, with no awkward or stilted language – not a single hint to the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The translation is truly a work of art, in and of itself.

I had very determinedly not read anything about My Brilliant Friend or Elena Ferrante prior to opening the book (as is my custom: I like coming to new books with a clean slate)… but it was hard! Elena Ferrante is the darling of the literary world, and I have an unhealthy level of curiosity about her. Her name is a pseudonym, and the true identity of the author has been withheld to this day, which is incredible given that we live in the digital age and Time named her one of the most influential people of 2016! We know that she was born in Naples in 1943, she has a classics degree, she is a mother, and (we infer) she is no longer married. Speculation as to her true identity is, of course, absolutely rife, but Ferrante herself has repeatedly argued that anonymity is a precondition for her work. She says: “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Academics and literary critics have reached various conclusions as to who the “real” Elena Ferrante is, but I’ll leave it up to them – doesn’t all the guesswork spoil the fun?

Anyway, to the book: once you make it through pages and pages of praise and acclaim, My Brilliant Friend kicks off with an Index of Characters, which I thought was really interesting. It evoked the Genealogical Table in the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights, and – much like Brontë’s classic – the guide really came in handy, because the Italian names all look remarkably similar at times, and almost every character has multiple nicknames. Yikes! The prologue sets up the series’ premise: a woman (Elena) receives a phone call from the son of a friend (Lila), saying that his mother has gone missing. Elena suspects that the “disappearance” is deliberate, and she takes it upon herself to record the details of Lila’s life, a passive-aggressive attempt to stop her vanishing into thin air. Basically, it’s a fictionalised biography, written out of sheer stubbornness. From that moment, Ferrante had me hooked!

(Boilerplate spoiler warning, as much as I hate them: I figure My Brilliant Friend is good enough, and recent enough, to warrant at least a perfunctory heads-up.)



Elena begins the story with their shared childhood, in 1950s Naples. She and Lila grew up in poverty, surrounded by domestic violence, class struggles, community politics, and very little in the way of parental supervision. Neither set of parents expects the girls to receive much of an education, despite the fact that they both show remarkable academic talent. Their lives diverge when Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue with school, while their teacher convinces Elena’s parents to cover the costs of further education.

Ferrante’s writing is so beautiful, and chock-full of insight! She gives one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of a panic attack that I have ever read, describing it as “dissolving margins”. There have been rumours (of course!) that Ferrante may, in fact, be a male writer, but from reading My Brilliant Friend I find that hard to believe. Ferrante writes about developing breasts (and the male curiosity about them) in a way that could have been lifted from my very own pubescent head. The only male writer I’ve come across that has ever come close to reaching that level of insight into the female mind was William Faulkner, in a single chapter of As I Lay Dying. So, no, I don’t believe Ferrante is a man. And I could natter on about her literary mastery forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself…

Back to the story: while Elena continues with school, Lila works in her father’s cobbler business, and develops new dreams and schemes of designing her own line of shoes, with a view to making enough money to lift the family out of poverty. Lila grows disarmingly beautiful (of course), attracting the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood. A young man from a powerful local family takes it into his head that he wants to marry her, and her family puts the pressure on (after all, he’s rich enough to own a car, and he bribes them by buying them a television of their very own)… but Lilia – headstrong, determined, contrary Lila – digs in her heels. She convinces the local grocer, Stefano, to propose instead, and he gets the family onside by offering to finance Lila’s shoe project.

Now, you might think from this (very brief, I’ll admit) description that Lila is the “brilliant friend”. She is, indeed, incredibly smart – as well as beautiful, cruel, opportunistic, and ambitious, with just a hint of a soft underbelly. Ferrante flips this notion on its head, though, when Lila reveals in the moments before her wedding that she considers Elena to be her “brilliant friend”. It’s a really touching scene between them, and I was gripping the book hard and blinking a lot as I read…

Lila’s marriage doesn’t get off to a flying start, exactly. Her new husband, Stefano, betrays her trust completely, by inviting her former suitor (the young, rich, powerful guy with the car and the television and the bad attitude) to the wedding, and Lila discovers that her new hubby actually sold him the prototype of her shoe line – the shoes that Stefano told her he would treasure forever and never let go. As far as she’s concerned, he can get in the bin…

and that’s where it ends!



It is, honestly, the cruelest ending I have ever read. I mean, it’s fantastic (!), and this is exactly how a series should be done, but Jesus wept… it’s not a cliche cliffhanger, nor is everything wrapped up neatly in a bow. The story just stops! Ferrante has said that she considers the Neapolitan series to be a single book, split into four volumes primarily for reasons of length, which makes sense of the ending somewhat. But still! I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t have a copy of the next book (The Story Of A New Name) ready to pick up, and I’ve got dozens of books to go on my original reading list before I can add any new ones! Gah!

I want to emphasise that this Keeping Up With The Penguins summary skips over a lot, because My Brilliant Friend is incredibly complex and detailed. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… heck, just listing all of the themes, with a brief description of how Ferrante handles them, would make for a prohibitively long review.

Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. In fact, I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. That goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking For Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty (or seventy, or a hundred) years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we consider Austen and the Brontës. Get in early, and read it now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:

  • “Spoiler Alert: Nothing of interest ever happens.” – Laurien in Oregon
  • “Nice. But more relevant for women…” – Amazon Customer
  • “And this is book1 out of 4! I frankly don’t think the characters are so interesting that they need to be captured in eighty squillion words. Having had said this, the author is brilliant at capturing voices and the vibe.” – D O WilshynskyDresler
  • “I don’t think I”ll finish. Boring me to death. I’m about 30% through and it’s like listening to a grandma ramble about her hardscrabble childhood. Very repetitive and not my grandma, so I don’t care.” – calamityj
  • “I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??….” – Jessica B.

The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy is special in the context of this project for a few reasons. It’s the oldest title on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list – Dante began writing it in 1308, and completed it in 1320. It’s also one of the very few not originally written in English. Dante was one of the first writers of the Middle Ages to produce work on a serious subject (the redemption of humanity and all that) in the low and vulgar Italian – normally, that kind of thing would be written in high-falootin’ Latin. And, finally, it’s the only poem (albeit a novel-length “narrative poem”) on the current List. So, this review is really one of a kind!

The Divine Comedy is a quasi-autobiographical poem (that reads like a book for the most part) about Dante’s “journey” through the three realms of the dead (Hell, Purgatory, Heaven). It makes sense, then, that it’s divided into three parts, each containing 33 cantos and an introduction (a canto is something like a chapter, I think – I don’t know much about poetry, don’t @ me).

This is the unabridged Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed translation. Apparently, it’s perfect for readers who are completely unfamiliar with Italian (ding, ding, ding, that’s me!). I’d like to pretend that I chose this copy specifically for that reason, but really this is the only complete copy that I could find while trawling the secondhand bookstores. First-time readers should be prepared, regardless of what version you pick, that most of the reading is in the footnotes. Seriously, there’s one at the end of basically every line. You’ll need two bookmarks for this bad boy.

A fun fact: Dante originally called this work “The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not in character”. So, would have known right from the outset that he is both petty and hilarious: an excellent combination. It ended up getting shortened to just “The Comedy”, and then a bunch of fanboys added the “Divine” later.


Hell (“Inferno”) is – obviously – the best part. Each sin gets its own “circle”, and some particularly brutal form of poetic justice. My favourite one was the fortune tellers forced to walk around with their heads fixed on backwards. According to Dante, they’re unable to see what is ahead for all eternity, because that’s what they’d tried to do as mortals. Burn!

“We went with the ten Demons: ah, hideous company! but, In Church with saints, and with guzzlers in the tavern.”

I think, secretly, the reason that everyone loves Inferno so much is that traversing through Hell gives Dante ample opportunity to just hang shit on everyone who had pissed him off in his life. It’s proof that humans haven’t changed that much in the last 700 years, we’re all just petty sacks of shit. The (many) footnotes give helpful insights as to what Roberto Luigi or whoever did to piss Dante off so much that he stuck him in the third circle of Hell. Good on Dante, I say! If people wanted you to write nice things about them, they should have treated you better.

There were a lot of helpful diagrams included with this edition, and I referred back to them a lot. Given that I received no religious education outside of “say please and thank you and don’t talk with your mouth full”, it was hard for me to keep track of who went where in Hell, and why. The explanatory notes crapped on a lot about geography and astronomy though (“the position of this particular mountain relative to the position of the sun and the appearance of the constellation Aries at exactly 7PM blah blah blah…”); I guess it’s all very important to serious grown-up readers, but I let it fly right over my head. I’m here for a good time, not a geography lesson.


I knocked over Inferno pretty quickly, and it was great. I could see why people bang on about it so much, but… well, the rest of The Divine Comedy was a bit of a slog, to be honest. Things started to drag from the start of Purgatory (“Purgatorio”): there was less humour, less drama, and it was hard to stay awake.

My lack of religious education started to really trip me up around that point, too. It seems that a bunch of sinners end up on Purgatory Mountain as well (I thought that was what the Hell Pit was for?), and they’ve got to sort their shit out as they climb up towards the Garden of Eden. Purgatory is pretty much Hell with less burning and more praying. The Hell Pit didn’t sound like much fun, I suppose (too much hard labour and skin sloughing off and ice lakes and stuff – reconsider your need to travel), so if you can hang out with all the gluttonous perverts on Purgatory Mountain, that would probably be the better deal.

Anyway, Dante – having schlepped through all the circles of Hell, sidestepping the demons – works his way up Purgatory Mountain, where every man wanted to stop and chat and ask Dante to put them in his prayers. Great. It turns out, he did it all so he could get to the top (“Paradiso”) and hang out with Beatrice, the dead girl he used to have the hots for. Only, when he gets there, she starts yelling at him and telling him he ain’t shit and he got up to too much sinning back in the mortal realm to ever be with a girl like her. Wtf?


I was very over The Divine Comedy by that point, and I had no time for Beatrice at all. I couldn’t work out why Dante was so into her; after she was done yelling, she just stood around smiling and coughing a lot. She was also a bit up herself; she literally said to him “don’t look at me, I’m so beautiful you’ll die, mate”. There were also no sexy bits.

All of this is to say I completely glazed over for most of Paradiso. It started to read like a medieval Wikipedia article, and the footnotes stretched on for pages at a time.

“… the union of the divine and human natures in Christ is the point which Dante declares will be as clear to souls in bliss as ‘the initial truth which man believeth,’ or is as clear to Justinian as that ‘every contradiction is both false and true.’ Now ‘the initial truth which man believeth’ is not a generic term for axiomatic truth, but a specific reference to the ‘law of contradictories’ on which the whole system of Aristotelian logic is build up. It asserts that the propositions: This is so and this is not so cannot both be true in the same sense and at the same time. And it follows immediately from this fundamental axiom, that of the two propositions “all A’s are B’s” and “some A’s are B’s” or of the two propositions “no A’s are B’s” and “some A’s are B’s”, one must be true and the other false. They cannot both be true or both false in the same sense at the same time…” – an actual extract from the footnotes, snore.

I think the thrust of it all was that humans need to pipe down with all of their “thinking” and “reasoning” because God has this shit worked out already and we shouldn’t fuck with it. But humans are probably too dumb to understand that anyway, so… just carry on, I guess? Paradiso had started to feel like a Where’s Wally, with my eyes desperately scanning every page for a phrase that made any sense at all. I was so, so grateful to be done with it – I don’t think that’s what Dante was going for, but here we are.

My tl;dr summary of The Divine Comedy overall is this: Inferno is hilarious and great, Purgatorio is just okay, Paradiso is a heap of shit. Read Inferno, and don’t bother with the rest (unless you need a sleep aid).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Divine Comedy:

  • “I never got this book. Did I order it?” – Dean
  • “well bound and looks great under my Dante bust.” – Robert W.
  • “This book really drags… it’s very long and redundant. The three places are all the same and paradise is anticlimatic. The main caracter is anoying. it’s confusing. the imagery is hard to imagion and to understand. The best part was his trip threw hell so I see why that’s the part people reference the most. I wouldn’t read it again and I do not recommend it and I do not see how reading it makes you smart or enlightened. It board me.” – porscha

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Want more? Check out my Complete(ish) Beginner’s Guide to Really Old Poems here.

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