Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 3)

Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

You might know Benjamin Disraeli from his time as a conservative Prime Minister of the UK. He became a Tory MP in 1837, then Prime Minister in 1868. You might find it hard to believe that he also squeezed out a decent writing career – not just before, or after, but actually during his time in office. Yep, that’s right, he was running the country and writing and publishing books all the while. And today, I’m reviewing one of them: Sybil, or The Two Nations.

As far as legacies of politicians go, Sybil is a pretty good one. First, it’s where we get the political concept of “one nation”, frequently cited (and misused, *cough*Pauline Hanson*cough*) by politicians today. It alludes to the bitter divide between the “two nations” of England in Disraeli’s time: the aristocratic landowners lived lives of luxury, while the workers and underclasses lived in horrific conditions and extreme poverty. Disraeli was making A Point, you see, that we should aspire to be “one nation”: a government that represents and rules for all, not just a privileged few. Oh, and Sybil also gave us the trope of a villain stroking a white cat. So, there you go.

Sybil was first published in 1845, the same year as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition Of The Working Class In England. Both books sought to draw attention to the plight of the poor, just in different ways. Disraeli wasn’t shy about shamelessly ripping off the ideas and research of others. In fact, a lot of the background information for Sybil was drawn directly from official government reports, to which he had access by virtue of his job. Disraeli wanted to make his political and philosophical points more palatable by shoe-horning them into a love story: “a tender love story linked to a gripping detective plot”, according to the blurb on this edition. That makes Sybil a “roman à thèse”, a fancy way of saying it’s a fictional book about an idea, a novel with a thesis. But don’t be fooled: the “love story” is the flimsiest excuse for a premise that I’ve ever encountered, and Sybil is a blatant critique of capitalism and industralisation.

Look, I’m all about political reform and uplifting the working classes. I can totally get behind Disraeli’s points about representative democracy and equality. But I must say, when it came to crafting a fictional story to make those points, Disraeli made a real pig’s ear of it. Sybil reads like he sat down with a checklist of everything that should be included in an “industrial novel”, and wrote until he checked off all of them, one by one: someone tours a factory and is horrified by the workers’ conditions, the workers go on strike, all the rich people panic, the characters have political arguments, someone tries to start a union…



The “story”, if we can call it that, follows Charles Egremont, a new conservative party MP (whose rich family basically bought him the election). His brother wants him to marry an heiress, Lady Joan, but Charles is ambivalent about that union (to say the least). While he’s trying to worm his way out of it, he runs into a bloke named Gerard, and overhears his daughter – Sybil – singing. And just like that, Charles is a goner! Just from hearing her voice, he falls head-over-clacker in love. Lady Joan be damned!

It sounds somewhat romantic, but bear in mind that it takes a lot of meandering chapters to get to this point – weird hybrids of character histories, and critical essays about British politics and monarchy rule. The book is set around the time of Queen Victoria’s ascendance to the throne, but Disraeli rambles on and on about hundreds of years of history before that. So, y’know, don’t get too excited.

Once he’s “fallen in love”, Charles Egremont starts hanging out with Gerard, trying to get a whiff of his daughter, and sticking his nose in everywhere it doesn’t belong. Charles tells himself he’s just trying to find out first-hand what the life of the working classes is actually like. And reader, it is grim. He is astounded that it’s so different to his life as a member off the aristocracy (imagine!), with all the starvation and disease and general misery. After a big blow-up argument with his brother about cancelling the wedding planner, Charles decides to move into a house up the road from Gerard for a while. All the better to continue with his new hobbies: spying on the poor, and jerking it to Sybil.

This gives Disraeli ample opportunity to air ALL of his grievances with capitalism. He likens the exploitation of the working classes to serfdom. What a revelation! *eye roll* Okay, fine, at the time, it probably was a revelation, but reading this “groundbreaking” critique two hundred years later, I was just sitting there like… yeah, no shit, mate.



Ultimately, as Charles watches on, the working classes mobilise (yeah, boys!). They’re fed up with all the workplace deaths and no tea in the break room, so they go on strike. It looks like it’s working, but things start to go awry when the protestors turn into an angry mob, and groupthink takes over. They decide they’re going to lay siege to Marney Castle. But don’t worry, Sybil and Charles get away safely, and live happily ever after.

Ah, yes, Sybil, we haven’t said much about her yet – mostly because there’s not much to say. She was so two-dimensional, she was almost see-through (even by the extra-low standard I set for privileged male writers of that period). Her main job was to stand around being beautiful and believing in social justice, while wealthy white men like Charles made all the decisions and did all the politicking. She eventually hooks up with Charles, of course, but that’s about all she does throughout the whole book named for her. Sad.

The introduction to this edition promised me that “Sybil is, in large part, a novel about what it feels like to be in love with someone who disapproves of you”, but – as I’m sure you can tell by now – I really wasn’t feeling that. Sybil is far grittier than, say, David Copperfield or Vanity Fair. It’s not as plot-driven, and it’s far more academic. That might be because, unlike Dickens and Thackeray, Disraeli’s work was never published in serial form, so he didn’t have to keep it pacy and punchy to keep the readers coming back week-to-week.

I think I only soaked in about 10% of what Disraeli was pouring out. Sybil is probably better suited to readers who are already deeply familiar with the system of British government and the monarchy, and/or people who have a keen interest and some background knowledge of 18th and 19th century British history. Having an at-best rudimentary understanding of both, this book didn’t do much for me. I appreciated Disraeli’s ideas, but I wasn’t a fan of his execution.

There was only one part that stuck with me, my favourite line:

“I rather like bad wine,” said Mr Mountchesney, “one gets so bored with good wine.”

That’s drawn from the opening scene and, to be frank, I wouldn’t recommend reading much further than that. The beginning was the best and most interesting part of the whole book, which isn’t saying much, sadly.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sybil:

  • “Could have done without icky sweet Sybil. Very powerful images of social inequities of the times. Are we heading this way?” – Quotarian
  • “I have only read the first bit, didn’t really grab my attention and hold it so the jury is still out” – TieDye Kid
  • “Benjamin Disraeli writes, “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” In Sybil, Disraeli attempts to explain the struggle of the Victorian working class. He spends a great deal of time justifying himself which is boring to read. The story itself is told by an obvious elitist masquerading as suffragette. Though it has many quotable sentences, I did not enjoy this book in its entirety.” – Ali


Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

I feel oddly guilty about picking up an abridged version of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. I know I shouldn’t, but I do! I would’ve preferred, of course, to read and review the full text (I’m a dirty completionist at heart), but they’re surprisingly hard to come by. I’m getting to the pointy end of my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list now – there’s no time left to waste searching further afield! Plus, Clarissa is literally one of the longest books in the history of the English language, over one million words long! Even my “abridged” copy runs to 500+ pages. So, I grit my teeth, and went ahead with it. This is Clarissa, as abridged by George Sherburn.

I mention Sherburn specifically to acknowledge his fine work, but also because, as he mentions in his note on the text, no two versions of Clarissa – abridged or otherwise – are exactly the same. The original edition (Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady) was first published in 1747-48. Each subsequent edition has introduced its own errors, oversights, changes, and mis-prints. So, don’t hate on me for any discrepancies between what I say here and what you’ve read for yourself!

Clarissa is an epistolary novel, but Richardson said that he intended it for it to be read as an instructional text, not merely as entertainment. Because I don’t give a shit about spoilers, I’m going to give you the key lessons right up front: parents, don’t meddle in your kids marriages. And girls, pick better husbands. That’s the tl;dr version.

It all starts with the Harlowes, a family of new money who are completely obsessed with improving their social standing. Their eldest daughter, Arabella, catches the eye of Captain Lovelace, a rich but roguish bachelor. Arabella is flattered, but she rebuffs his advances. Then, for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear (to me, anyway), Lovelace and Arabella’s brother, James, end up in a duel. James comes off second-best, and Lovelace is promptly made persona non grata at Casa de Harlowe.

Lovelace gives no fucks at all. He sets his sights on the younger Harlowe sister, our girl Clarissa. He makes her repeated offers of marriage. The family should have been falling all over themselves for her to accept, given that they want to better their position and all, but they’re kind of hung up on how he stabbed James that one time, so they tell her to tell him to fuck off. They arrange for a different bloke – Mr Holmes – to marry Clarissa instead.

And how does Clarissa feel about all this? She’s not that fussed on either of them, to be honest. She’d be happy enough to stay at home, being a dutiful daughter and writing long letters to her BFF Miss Howe. She refuses to marry Holmes, and she’s all “I’m not going to marry Lovelace either, but what’s so bad about him? I could do worse!”.

Daddy Harlowe is not pleased. Not at all. In fact, he locks Clarissa in her room until she agrees to do as he says. He also fires her favourite servant, just to show her he means business.

Important note: ALL OF THIS happens in the first seventy pages! Clarissa might be a long book, even in its abridged form, but DAMN! It builds up to a rollicking pace, very quickly!



Anyway, poor Clarissa ends up locked in her room for weeks on end. Her family insist that she must secretly have the hots for Lovelace if she won’t marry Holmes, and she’s all “Umm, no? I just think I should be able to choose my own husband, ya dig?”. They don’t dig.

Meanwhile, Lovelace keeps finding ways to send Clarissa secret love notes. He begs her to run away with him, which – to be fair – looks like a more and more attractive prospect, the longer this locked-in-her-room business carries on.

The thing is, when we finally start to hear a bit more about Lovelace’s side of the story, we learn that he is a TOTAL NARCISSISTIC PSYCHOPATH. He’s hell bent on getting exactly what he wants, whatever the cost. He concocts a scheme to trick Clarissa into running away with him, and the bastard actually pulls it off. Never mind that it does irreparable damage to her relationship with her family, and causes a huge scandal – Lovelace is just happy to have “won” his “prize”. Ugh.

“You are all too rich to be happy.”

Page 19

Clarissa’s “freedom” is short-lived, and she becomes Lovelace’s prisoner in effect. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for our girl. Her family refuse her requests for forgiveness. They won’t let her come home, or even send over her stuff. Lovelace drags her up and down the country to various “safe” houses. He even hides her in a brothel at one point; that might not sound so bad to contemporary readers, but at the time, living in a house of “ill repute” meant saying buh-bye to any chance you had for a good reputation and a good life. Poor Clarissa!

Our girl isn’t backing down, though. She still refuses to marry Lovelace, and it drives him bonkers. She manages to escape at one point, but alas, he catches her and cons her into coming back.

By every standard we hold today, Lovelace was an abuser. Let’s be clear about that. He’s not a “romantic lead”. He cuts Clarissa off from her family. He controls her finances. He emotionally manipulates her within an inch of her life. And, of course, support systems for victims of domestic violence back then weren’t what they are today (ahem). All Clarissa has going for her is her friend, Miss Howe, and her advice pretty much amounts to “marry Lovelace to shut him up, and fingers crossed he dies young”. Not helpful!

In between proposals, Lovelace keeps trying to get into Clarissa’s pants – and (hopefully) I don’t need to explain why pre-marital hanky-panky was a big no-no back then. She turns him down every time. Fed up with rejection, the abhorrent creep drugs and rapes her, and this has (to say the least) a severe impact on Clarissa’s physical and mental health.

Like all abusers, Lovelace comes to her with the I’m-so-sorrys and the I’ll-do-betters and the please-marry-me-anyways. He just WILL. NOT. STOP. PROPOSING. (mostly because, it would seem, he’d rather bone a more enthusiastic participant). Our amazing girl, even in the death-grip of PTSD, still tells him to go directly to hell.



After a couple more failed attempts, Clarissa FINALLY manages to escape for good. She finds sanctuary with a nice married couple who live above a shop, but she lives in constant fear that Lovelace will find her. He sends his friend, John Belford, to try and lure her back, but that plan totally backfires when Belford takes pity on Clarissa and they become friends.

Clarissa is dangerously ill at this point – mostly due to stress – and she starts preparing for her death. She appoints Belford the executor of her will, and he’s super-impressed by how mature she’s being about the whole thing. That’s when Richardson throws in a lot of Christian God talk; it’s up to you whether that’s fine or bothersome.

Clarissa’s cousin, Morden, shows up, just in time to see her before she shuffles off the coil. The rest of her family have a change of heart about the whole ostracising-her-for-eternity thing, but they’re about a minute too late. Clarissa dies before anyone can make amends. In an iconic act of passive-aggression, she leaves them a bunch of really good stuff in her will, so they feel extra-bad about how they treated her.

Lovelace is apparently super-bummed about his victim’s death (yeah, boohoo). Belford convinces him that it would be an opportune time to take a holiday, because Cousin Morden wants to beat the shit out of him. He takes off, but Morden tracks him down anyway, and Lovelace comes a cropper. The End.

Richardson concludes with a summary of what happens to all the other characters afterwards (along the lines of that awful Harry Potter epilogue), and throws in a little more moralising to round things out. Just to reiterate, the take-home messages are: parents, don’t interfere in your kids’ plans (or otherwise) for marriage. Ladies, friends don’t let friends marry arseholes. And fellas, no means no. You got that?

Clarissa was well-received upon publication, but a lot of readers got all mad that Clarissa and Lovelace didn’t get a happily-ever-after (seriously!). Some even wrote their own alternative endings, which I guess would constitute the original fan-fic. Richarson worried, with all the brouhaha, that his actual message, the morals of it all, hadn’t cut through. All his readers were too hung up on this supposed “love story”. So, in later editions, he made changes to paint the Clarissa character in a “purer” (more sympathetic) light, while making Lovelace more sinister and evil.

I was really impressed with how Sherburn handled the abridgement. It would seem, from his notes, that he only omitted one noticeable plot point (the death of a minor character); and, even then, he gave enough of an explanation in-text that I didn’t feel like I missed much.

On the whole, Clarissa wasn’t as difficult a read as I was expecting. It had a Pride And Prejudice vibe to it, but written in the epistolary fashion of Dracula and a bit long-winded like Tristram Shandy. In fact, I reckon if Austen, Stoker, and Sterne had a creative three-way, Clarissa would be the resultant love-child. If two out of three of those appeal, this is the book for you!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Clarissa:

  • “Longer than “War and Peace”, this account of virtue chased and trashed is the novel’s version of continuous cricket: mad in detail, slow in execution, passionately related. Told in letters, the correspondents spend what seems a year recalling a year but a crowded year. Take this book to a desert island; it will endure and also make a crackling blaze.” – Peter Jakobsen
  • “Well, it took me two years to read it, but Miss Harlowe did change my life for the better. The book can be quite psychological and gripping, but my favorite parts are the communiques, in turns sweet and chastising, between Clarissa and her BFF, Miss Howe. Of course, the ending’s a bummer.” – A. Johnson
  • “What a group of despicable characters! By page 500, I was hoping every character would be put to the rack. By page 1000, I was hoping for a mass hanging. By page 1500, I was willing to grant clemency to a few.

    Dozens of times I nearly relegated this book to the pile of books to be sent to an enemy – BUT – each time would pick it up again because I had to know if my hopes would be realized.

    Should you read Clarissa? By all means; if for no other reason than to serve as penance for all past sins of omission or commission wreaked on others.” – Tanstaafl
  • “I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far this is one of the best books ever. I just know things will turn out well for Clarissa. She’s the best. I bet she’ll get married to some foreign king and live in a Swedish castle with him. Lovelace is okay, but she can do better. I bet you she dumps him at the end of the book. I can see it now. She’ll probably say: “Don’t go there Lovelace” and walk out the door. I can’t wait to see what this book has in store for Clarissa Harlowe. Best character ever! Best book ever!” – misterb1020
  • “Okay, the book came in tip-top shape, and the story is a masterpiece, totally five stars. By the way, if you’ve read it, I must congratulate you…it’s one of the longest novels ever written in the world.

    Anyway, Clarissa’s character at first was lovely. I enjoyed her, but after awhile, I started to hate her. I really did. Granted, I know she went through that ordeal and all, but then hundreds and hundreds of pages following that ordeal, I got soooo sick of her self-pity and, “I’m a poor creature” this, and “I’m a poor creature,” that, and, “I’m the most abandoned person in the world, poor creature me, me, me,” and I very literally wished she would just shut the hell up and die already. She was as much of a narcissist, in my opinion, as Lovelace. I mean, she just kept wallowing, with her stupid uplifted hands and eyes, her kerchief perpetually to her face, whimpering about herself and lousy life when there were so many opportunities for a happy ending. She was always talking about her fame and what a great person she was, and how could such a famous, pious creature as herself be brought so low? She literally committed suicide by starvation, and just LOVED talking about how ill she was and the way she was dying. I mean, she really loved talking about her pending death, and made such a huge display of it among her new acquaintances. And excepting her immediate family, she she had so many friends around her willing to help: Anna, Mr. Belford, Mr. Hickman, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Smith, etc., yet, she kept lamenting how alone she was, that she was friendless and abandoned. It’s like, she enjoyed this negativity. Instead of becoming a strong, powerful character after her experience, she became a self-pitying, egomaniac. Ugh. I do love this story because it really got a reaction out of me! If a story can do that, then the author did something right.” – Stimpy

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

When I read the blurb of this Penguin edition of Robinson Crusoe, my first thought was: hang on a minute! They’re saying THIS is the first English novel, now? I thought it was The Pilgrim’s Progress! According to my bookish timeline, The Pilgrim’s Progress was published long before Robinson Crusoe. I guess it depends how you define “novel” when it comes to deciding which one was “first”. Apparently, there’s been some in-fighting at the Penguin editorial offices! Either way, I knew I was in for another shipwreck novel, and I hoped fervently that this one would work out better for me than Lord Of The Flies

Defoe was remarkably prolific over the course of the last decade or so of his life. He published Robinson Crusoe and a bunch of sequels, but still managed to die in debt, in hiding from his creditors. The introduction hastens to reassure me that Robinson Crusoe isn’t all that representative of his body of work; he got into writing for the money (ha!), and this is just one of many books he wrote because he sensed there’d be a market for it. Among those other works of his, the one that caught my eye was a beauty published in 1727, titled Conjugal Lewdness; or Matrimonial Whoredom, A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed. I literally snorted aloud when I read that title (and again when I realised you can still buy copies in print!).

But to the book at hand, which was, incidentally, originally titled The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (Defoe had clearly done his keyword research). The titular character is part of an illegal expedition to purchase slaves, but winds up shipwrecked, and forced to work as a slave would to keep himself alive (only he gets a much happier ending than most slaves did, naturally).

“Crusoe’s transformation from terrified and confused survivor to colonial master and avenging overlord of his island marks Robinson Crusoe as one of the key modern myths of English and even European culture.”

p. xxvii

Defoe probably drew his inspiration from many of the real-life stories of castaways that were floating around at the time. In particular, there was a Scottish sailor by the name of Alexander Selkirk, who was stranded for four years on the (until then) uninhabited island of Mās a Tierra, which has since been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, in honour of the novel that immortalised it. Defoe was notoriously secretive about the sources of his inspiration, but we can be pretty confident that Selkirk was his model for the hero of his book. In fact, there’s a whole body of work investigating and documenting Defoe’s muses, including Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe.



If you’re going to give this one a go, you need to be prepared: there’s no chapter breaks (just like The Pilgrim’s Progress), so it reads as one long block of text. But I’ll be breaking it down for you, so never fear 😉

It starts with a young Robinson Crusoe telling his parents to fuck off, and taking to voyages at sea against their wishes. He has a lot of rotten luck with shipwrecks and describes a few, including the story of how he came to own a Brazilian plantation as a result of one of them, before he gets to the main event…

He joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa, but winds up shipwrecked on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco River (serves him right, to be honest). He, and three animals – the captain’s dog, and two cats – are the only ones to survive. He manages to salvage a bunch of tools, guns, and other supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks entirely.

And then he gets to work. He builds himself a “home”, of sorts, a rudimentary gated community. He figures out how to make a calendar, with blunt marks on a wooden cross. He hunts, raises goats, cultivates barley and rice, dries grapes to make raisins (but not wine? wtf?), and figures out how to make pottery with the limited tools and materials he has within reach. He also sits around reading the Bible a whole bunch, and talks ad nauseam about how grateful he is to God that he survived. As far as Crusoe can see, he’s pretty well set; the only thing missing is a little human connection.



Years pass, and Crusoe notices that “native cannibals” (his words, not mine) occasionally visit the island to kill and eat their prisoners. Naturally. He gets all worked up about it, and makes a plan to kill them in turn for committing such an abomination. Then, he thinks the better of it (what a guy!). He turns his efforts to freeing a prisoner or two, so he can put them in his own employ as servants and talk God with them on the long, cold, lonely nights. Eventually, one prisoner does escape his captors, only to end up in Crusoe’s clutches. He is christened “Friday”, after the day of the week he “appeared”, and Crusoe teaches him English and brainwashes him into converting.

I don’t think I even need to say it, but I will anyway: gross. So gross. Colonially gross. And every restaurant or other business that has referenced “Friday” in this regard is gross, too.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, so let me continue: more “natives” show up and apparently partake in a cannibal feast. Crusoe and Friday forget all about how they’ve decided it’s “not their place” to take vengeance, and they kill most of them, sparing a couple of prisoners – one of whom is Friday’s father, and the other a Spaniard, who tells Crusoe all about his ship that wrecked back on the mainland.

Crusoe’s cogs start turning: he devises a plan to head back to the mainland with this Spanish guy, and Friday’s father, and bring all of the remaining crew back to Crusoe Island. Then, they’d work out how to build a new ship, set sail, and return to a Spanish port. Great plan, guys! Seriously! Flawless!



Then another ship shows up, an English one (it’s like that island from the TV show Lost, ships just keep showing up even though they’re apparently uninhabited). Mutineers have taken over the vessel, and their intention is to ditch their disgraced Captain on the island and sail on. Crusoe, ever the opportunist, strikes a deal with the Captain that he’ll help him take back the ship, on the condition that they leave the mutineers to suffer in their jocks on the island as he’s had to do all these years, and they’ll sail back home together. In an odd moment of Christian charity that seems otherwise completely out of step with his character, Crusoe takes the time to show the ditched mutineers how he survived on the island, and promises them that he’ll send a ship back to retrieve them later (wouldn’t hold my breath).

And, just like that: Robinson Crusoe is rescued! After “eight and twenty years, two months, and nineteen days”, he heads back to England. His family have long assumed him dead (understandable, really), so there’s nothing left for him from his father’s will, and not a whole lot else to keep him there. He heads for Lisbon, to claim the profits of his estate in Brazil, and goes to great effort to transport it all back over land. He’s determined he’ll never go near the goddamn sea again (once again, understandable). Friday accompanies him all the way *cough*Stockholm Syndrome*cough*, and they have one last adventure together fighting off hungry wolves in the Pyrenees. I must admit, I skimmed through that part – I was pretty over it.

When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, it was a smash hit. The initial print run of 1,000 copies sold out straight away. To meet the demand, the printer issued five more runs, marking some of them as new “editions”. He wasn’t real crash hot at his job, though, because he managed to introduce new errors every time. The text for the edition I read is based on a photocopy of one of the first-first editions held in the British Library. Interestingly, it credits the author as being the protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, leading many readers to believe it was a real-life memoir type of thing.

Even with the errors, all the new editions sold out, too. Defoe quickly wrote a lesser-known sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which he claimed would be the last of the Crusoe stories… but, being the money-hungry bugger he was, he couldn’t resist releasing a third, Serious Reflections During The Life And Surprising Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe: With His Vision Of The Angelick World the following year. By the end of the 1800s, there was no other book that had more editions, spin-offs, and translations – more than 700 of them!



So, let’s break down (some of) the ways in which this book is extremely problematic, shall we?

Crusoe sees himself as King Of The World (the world being his island), and imposes all of his European technology and agriculture upon it, basically just trying to re-create his homeland. He goes so far as to explicitly refer to the island as his “colony” by the end of the novel. And, of course, a large part of that is his exploitation of Friday, who is – no bones about it – his actual slave. Defoe went out of his way to idealise their master-servant relationship, because it played well for the predominant worldview at the time. He couldn’t risk losing book sales just to make a political point about human rights, now, could he? I respect the hustle, I guess, but I just can’t get past how gross it was. Here’s Crusoe, the “enlightened” European, redeeming the “savage” from his “barbarous” way of life through enforced assimilation. Ugh.

It’d take thousands of words, probably a whole book, for me to break down this bullshit, and I’m sure there are plenty of other people (far smarter than me) who are better able to identify and articulate all of the relevant issues. For now, let me just say: if those themes bother you, Robinson Crusoe is a book you want to back up slowly from and never look at again.

Those attitudes weren’t just dreamt up by Defoe to make for compelling fiction. In real life, he was a Puritan moralist (remember that other book of his I mentioned up top?), and mostly he wrote about how to be a good Christian. That’s why so much of Robinson Crusoe focuses on the main character ruminating about providence and penitence and redemption. Crusoe really hammers home Defoe’s believe in an absolute morality – we can see that in the way he treats cannibalism, declaring it a “national crime” on the island he stole settled, and forbids Friday from practicing it (even though, as I read it, the poor guy had no intentions of eating anyone).



If you can get past all that – and hats off to you if you can, because I really struggled – there’s a bunch of other ways to read this book, which is probably why it has endured as long as it has. It could be read as an allegory for how civilisation develops, a manifesto for neoliberal economic individualism, the importance of repentance, the strength of religious faith, etc. It also marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre, so (even for all its sins) we owe Robinson Crusoe a pretty huge debt. Defoe spawned many imitators, and castaway novels became extremely popular in the 18th and 19th century. Stories along these lines, of shipwreck and humanity’s triumph, are now called “Robinsonade”. Most of them have fallen into obscurity in the intervening centuries, but Swiss Family Robinson is still kicking – and its homage wasn’t subtle, Johann David Wyss literally borrowed Crusoe’s first name for the family in his story (as the title suggests). And Gulliver’s Travels, which was published a few years after Robinson Crusoe, has largely been read as a rebuttal of Defoe’s optimism. Having read them both now, I can totally see that. A more recent example would be Cast Away, the 2000 film starring Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee who winds up stranded on an island alone for many years.

Look, I didn’t hate Robinson Crusoe. I certainly read it more eagerly than I did Lord Of The Flies. I’m just not on board with the colonialist bullshit it espoused, even in context. I did appreciate the psychological and behavioural struggles that Defoe depicted (with startling accuracy, given that psychology as a field wasn’t born until about three hundred years later), in terms of the effects of isolation on Crusoe’s habits and emotions. For instance, the scene where birds were pecking at his burgeoning crops – a banal regularity for most agricultural farmers – was terrifying and emotionally devastating for Crusoe, alone on an island with few tools and no help, entirely dependent on that crop for his future food security. I was pretty moved by that part, actually, even if he was a racist dickhead.

Most importantly, however, just as reading The Martian convinced me that I couldn’t possibly survive on Mars, reading Robinson Crusoe convinced me that I would never survive being shipwrecked alone on a desert island. I’ve made my peace with it. If it happens, I’ll just drink whatever booze I can pull off the ship, and meet my maker tipsy shortly thereafter. It sounds preferable to fart-arsing around building shelters and fires – I know my priorities.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Robinson Crusoe:

  • “Soooo unhappy with this! Was NOT Robinson Crusoe as ordered but inside government was one world government propaganda. :(“ – Jennifer Kline
  • “This version (hardback, Sterling) is actually pretty nice itself! Good binding, pretty art on dust jacket, and artwork throughout.

    AS FOR THE ACTUAL STORY, it’s awful! What was Daniel Defoe thinking? First novel? Yeah, we can tell, buddy! You just have a 26-year-old white dude stranded on an island for … a long time, and it’s just 150-ish straight pages of us reading how he tames goats and figures out how to grow grapes. Whoop-de-friggin-do! Don’t bother. Read “The Female American” instead. It’s got its own problems, but it’s a heck of a step up from this. My coworker Taylor recommended this to me, and now I know why everyone hates her.” – Cat Grass
  • “Don’t waste your money. I bought this book before reading the reviews and it was the worst mistake of my life. Because I didn’t read the reviews, I have to now get another book.” – Hope Y. Parrish
  • “Christmas gift for grandson…get him off the computer.” – Amazon Customer


Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Have you ever been so bored of the men at a party that you create an entirely new genre of literature? Did you then follow that up by writing one of the most enduring monster stories of all time? That’s the potted version of Mary Shelley’s life, but that’s what happened, and we should all be worshipping at her feet. I’ll talk more about her fascinating (and terribly tragic) life in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at her best-known work: Frankenstein, the story of a young scientist and an unorthodox experiment that went horribly wrong.

The original full title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, though most modern editions (including mine, see above) exclude that subtitle, which is a shame because it tells us a lot about the story. A quick Greek mythology lesson: Prometheus created mankind on Zeus’s orders. He taught us to hunt and read and talk and do all those human-y things we love to do. Zeus was a bit disappointed with the final product, though, so he punished us by keeping fire for himself and the other gods. Our boy, Prometheus, wasn’t having that, and he told Zeus to fuck right off. He brought fire down to us, and copped his punishment on the chin. Zeus sentenced him to be eternally fixed to a rock, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for it to regrow overnight and he’d have to go through the same again the next day. So, yeah, we owe Prometheus a lot, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with Shelley’s Frankenstein

Oh, and another quick note to get out of the way before we dive in: yes, we know, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. We fucking know. People who point it out are (generally) wankers. Shelley never gave the monster in the name, identifying it in the book as the “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “fiend”, and so on. Of course, she was making a point about how the lack of a name prevents a sentient being from forging a true identity and all of that, but the confusion also means that mistakes will happen and I wish readers wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. I’ll be calling the monster “the monster”, for the sake of clarity, but just so you know if I ever hear you say um-actually-Frankenstein-was-the-doctor in conversation, I will roll my eyes at you.



So, the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually framed a couple of different ways in the book. It’s an epistolary novel, with events taking place sometime during the 18th century. Captain Robert Walton kicks things off with a few letters to his sister; he’s been trying to sail to the North Pole, and his crew picked up one Dr Victor Frankenstein off the ice, where he had apparently collapsed while chasing after a monstrous creature.

Through a series of conversations with the good doctor, Walton is able to deduce that he actually created this monster and now lives a life of misery and horror as a result of his creation. Frankenstein offers up his story as a cautionary tale, and tells it so…

Young Victor was obsessed with science as a kid, even though everyone else thought he was a weirdo. After his mother died, he took himself off to university, and he began doing experiments as a way of escaping his grief and keeping his mind busy. That’s how he stumbled upon a technique for creating life from inanimate objects.

Now, you might assume he used electricity to do that, but that’s actually not in the canon – Shelley, in her book, described an elemental process and some vague alchemy. The use of electric shocks and screws in the monster’s neck didn’t appear until the 1931 film adaptation and other early depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. So, there you go.

With his new secret chemical formula to make dead things become alive things, Frankenstein created a huge humanoid form (it had to be big, he explained, otherwise the small bits would be too fiddly) out of pieces he scrounged from cadavers. He tried to make it pretty, but when the monster came to life it was scary as all hell. Frankenstein, freaked out by what he had done, reverted to the age-old tradition of doing a runner. He bailed the fuck out of his laboratory, leaving the monster there.



You’d think that would take up most of the pages of this slim book, but Frankenstein moves really quickly, so the story is only just beginning. In perhaps my favourite plot point ever, Dr Frankenstein returned to his laboratory to find the monster missing… and he’s all “Phew! We’re cool! Problem solved!”. He doesn’t even wonder where it went. LOL!

The whole situation stressed him out so much that he ended up getting really sick. He recovered just in time for the monster to kill his little brother. The criminal justice system being what it is, the authorities arrested and convicted the kid’s nanny of the murder, and put her to death. By Frankenstein’s math, that put his monster’s death toll up to two, and he was pissed.

After a while, he reunited with his monster. The poor creature tried to explain himself, saying he was just sad that everyone hated and feared him (aw!). He asked the doctor to build him a wife, so he didn’t have to be lonely anymore. That sounded pretty reasonable to me, but then the monster threatened to kill everyone Frankenstein loved if he didn’t comply with this request – which was, admittedly, less chill.

How is the monster able to communicate these demands, you ask? Well, it turns out he spent most of the intervening time stalking a kind immigrant family, peeping in their windows, and somehow all those hours watching them and stealing from their library taught him language. He’s startlingly eloquent, given the basis of his education. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but if the monster learning to speak is the most unrealistic part of this novel for you, you might need to re-evaluate your priorities…



The doctor headed for England, taking a friend with him, and the monster followed hot on his heels. Frankenstein got to work back in the laboratory, but inside he was still freaking out that the female he created would hate the monster, or turn out even more evil than him, or (worst of all) they might fall in love and start breeding, unleashing a new generation of horror on the world. When that thought occurred to him, it was the final fucking straw. Frankenstein had had a gutful, you guys! He destroyed all the work he had done and told the monster to shove it.

You’d think the monster would fly into a rage at this point, but he actually took the news quite well. In sum, his reaction was: “Yeah, okay, no wife for me, but no wife for you either – when you get married, I’m coming for your girl on your wedding night, so watch your back,”. And then he killed Frankenstein’s friend, just to show he meant business.

Now, I realise Dr Frankenstein doesn’t have a great track record with decision-making, but at this point he makes a truly, unbelievably bad call. Despite the monster’s warnings, and his own growing anxiety, he went ahead and got married to his adopted sister (whom he referred to as his cousin – it’s almost-but-not-quite incest, which is a bit gross, but George R.R. Martin has pretty much deadened our sensitivities on that subject forever).

And, sure enough, that very night, the monster showed up and took her out. The doctor, enraged, chased him all the way to the North Pole, determined to defeat his monstrous creation once and for all, but he collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia before he could catch him. That’s where Walton and his crew found the man, and we’re back at the beginning again.



Dr Frankenstein promptly dies, but he makes Captain Walton promise to kill the monster on his behalf. The monster, of course, conveniently appears on board shortly thereafter. I was expecting a big violent showdown, but he is able to talk Walton out of killing him by making a big show of mourning the death of his creator. He promises to kill himself instead, and Walton’s all “Um, okay?”, and watches as the monster drifts away on the ice, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy ending – heck, it’s not a happy book.

It was a lot more introspective than I expected. Really, this whole story is about interior worlds. Frankenstein, at its heart, is about the shame and guilt of the Doctor, and the loneliness and desperation of his monster.

Now, this is one of those rare cases where the story of how a book came to be written is just as fascinating as the book itself (if not more!). In 1814, aged just sixteen, Mary met and fell in love with the then-unknown poet Percy Shelley, and she ran away with him. They weren’t married until 1816, shortly after Percy’s first wife died by suicide (oh, yeah, the guy was a real peach).

The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary that year, when she was holidaying with Percy and his mate Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that they have a writing competition, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary dithered for a few days, and struggled to come up with anything she thought would be scary enough, but she knew she was onto a winner when she dreamed of a scientist who created life but was horrified by what he had made. She connected that premise with her earlier travels in Geneva, where she’d passed Frankenstein Castle (yes, a real place); in there, a couple centuries earlier, an alchemist had engaged in strange and dark experiments. Boom! A horror story, and the science fiction genre, was born.



The themes of the work, we can see in retrospect, were very clearly drawn from Mary Shelley’s real life. She had a pretty rough trot: her mother died, she had a terrible relationship with her father, her first child was born prematurely and died in her arms while Percy was off having an affair with one of her step-sisters. From these experiences, she distilled themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature, and funneled them into Frankenstein. Consider how the monster turns evil due to a lack of parental and spiritual guidance, for instance…

Mary initially conceived Frankenstein as a short story, but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded the manuscript into a full-length novel. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister (told you! rough fucking trot!), and the first edition was published anonymously in January 1818. Then she moved to Italy, where she lived with Percy until he drowned in 1822 (seriously, the woman’s life was just an endless parade of death and misery).

Mary Shelley’s name wasn’t connected to the book until the second edition was published with a proper byline in 1823. She was 25 years old. When the author’s gender was revealed, the British Critic published a review that said:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

“Oh, snap!”, they might have thought, but the reading public didn’t give a shit. Frankenstein sold gangbusters; it was an immediate popular success, and by the middle of the 20th century it was demanding serious and extensive critical attention from academics. The list of subsequent adaptations and re-releases is longer than my arm, and readers are, even today, always hungry for more.



Frankenstein fused elements of the Gothic and the Romantic, capturing the attention of both audiences, and it levelled-up the popular ghost stories of the time to create the first true science fiction novel. No longer were monsters and mysterious beings purely fantastical; Shelley gave us a monster that was the product of man’s own actions, his own scientific experimentation and discovery, and that had never been done before. Not bad for a teenager who was just trying to show up her boyfriend and his mate on holiday, eh?

There are now a few different editions floating around, the later ones being highly revised and sanitised. It’s up to you which you’d prefer to read, but I’m a fan of dirty bits in literature, so I’d recommend trying to find the earliest version, as close to the original as you can. I’d also highly recommend you check out this great discussion over on the Keeper Of Pages blog, for more fascinating insights into reading (or re-reading) Frankenstein.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Frankenstein:

  • “free book enough said” – andrew
  • “*SPOILER ALERT* Basically, this guy spent time of his life trying to life from scratch. But when he finally succeeded, he got scared and ran away from it? There are a lot of questionable decisions from him too. He fits the definition of “coward”.” – Rusydi Farhan
  • “I thought I had the wrong book when I started reading it. Very different from most of the Frankenstein movies.” – Mark B
  • “WRONG LANGUAGE” – jackeline
  • “This book stinks! Munsters re-runs are much better” – Rich Fish from Glen Ridge
  • “Very boring story about a crazy science guy who wants to reanimate a Trump lookalike. On the positive side I would like to pitch in and her a hand” – Prince Henri I
  • “Movie was a million times better than that stupid story but I will say that it was very poorly written” – JMann
  • “Terrible novel; long, preachy, unrealistic, especialy where Frankenstein’s “monster” has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other classics and holds forth like an Oxford don.” – Richard Kelly
  • “This book was so boring I threw it out my window. (Almost) It just had too much detail” – Bernard Callahan


9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head. Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I’ve changed my mind. I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (in fact, Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to take off your feminist-ideals hat to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down, and rolled up my sleeves, and dove in to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue and language don’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life, styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review here.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review here.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review here.

Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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



Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here we are, Keeper-Upperers: face-to-face with my reading challenge white whale. Anyone who’s been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while knows the story of how I’ve started and abandoned Pride And Prejudice no fewer than six times. Never again! I finally sat down with Austen’s romantic novel, one of the most popular books in English literature, and I’m pleased to say we’ve worked out our issues and reconciled. Woohoo!

Pride And Prejudice (original working title First Impressions) was first published on 28 January 1813. Since then, it’s sold over 20 million copies, and saturated our public consciousness to the point that it’s now considered the origin story for many common archetypes that we still see in fiction today. In 2003, nearly two centuries after its release, the BBC conducted a poll to determine the UK’s “best-loved book”, and Pride And Prejudice came in second (it lost out to Lord Of The Rings). More locally, a poll of over 15,000 Australian readers in 2008 saw them vote it into first place on a list of the 101 best books ever written. So, yeah, it’s still got some currency.

The introduction to this edition is long – over 40 pages! I considered skipping it, but I persevered. Some of it was interesting, some of it wasn’t, so I guess it all comes out in the wash. The highlights for me were learning that Charlotte Brontë wasn’t a fan of Austen’s work (good trivia!), and this little gem of a summary:

“It is indeed possible to call its relevance to the society of the time into question, for during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind.”

Introduction, Pride And Prejudice (page 7)

Also, I might be coming around to the idea of ignoring the footnotes. It pains me to admit it (because my husband is a strong advocate for skipping them, and I hate it when he’s right), but here we are. There are basically none in this edition of Pride And Prejudice, so I tried reading it without them and I felt like I didn’t miss anything I couldn’t pick up from context clues. Plus, the reading is all the more enjoyable for not having to flick back and forth all the time. Gosh, if only I’d come around to this way of thinking before now, maybe one of those earlier attempts might have worked out…



So, Pride And Prejudice begins with fuss-pot matriarch Mrs Bennet trying to persuade her husband to visit Mr Bingley, a rich and eligible bachelor who has just moved in up the road. Thus, the famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. After a bit of to-and-fro, Mr Bennet makes the visit, and it’s followed by an invitation for the family to attend a ball.

This family, one of the most famous in literature, consists of Mr & Mrs Bennet and their five daughters: Jane (the beauty), Lizzie (the smarty-pants), Mary (the plain loner), Kitty (the impressionable one), and Lydia (the… worldly one). They all trot off to this ball, and Mr Bingley is every bit as wonderful as they’d imagined. He takes a special interest in Jane, which sends everyone aflutter, and they start planning the wedding (that’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think).

Mr Bingley’s wingman, Mr Darcy, is a whole other story. He’s twice as rich, but not half as nice. He negs Lizzie at this party, and then at another, and then again at another. Pride And Prejudice is basically the story of how a pick-up artist meets a feminist and falls in love. In fact, I think it might be the origin of the reformed-bad-boy trope, and by rights I should be rolling my eyes in disgust… but, like with Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the hidden sappy side of me took over for a minute and I let myself enjoy it.

(Also, spoiler alert: Darcy is the “proud” one, and Lizzie is the “prejudiced” one, but really neither of them are perfect in either regard.)



Anyway, some time later, Jane goes to visit Mr Bingley’s sister, under the guise of making new friends. In reality, she just wants to get a glimpse of her new man, pulling the old “Oh, I didn’t even know you’d be here!” trick. By her mother’s design, she gets caught in the rain and develops a rotten cold (why did all Victorian ladies have such terrible immune systems?), forcing her to stay a few days. Then, a whole lotta drama plays out: Lizzie visits the Bingleys’, Darcy gets a boner, Miss Bingley gets jealous, and Jane drags out this convenient cold as long as she can to stay closer to the object of her affections.

Then, Mr Collins (heir to the estate on which the Bennets live) pays a visit. The property is “entailed”, which I took to mean none of the Bennet girls could inherit unless one of them married this dude. And he’s well aware of their desperation (gross). He figures he can take his pick of the young ladies, and they won’t have a choice if they want to keep the family home (super-gross). He crosses Jane off the list, even though she’s the hot one, because he doesn’t want to cut Mr Bingley’s grass (yes, a man’s supposed ownership of a woman is to be respected more than her own autonomy, HELLO PATRIARCHY MY OLD FRIEND). Mr Collins sets his sights on Lizzie, and she (quite rightly) tells him to fuck off. He gets super butt-hurt, and runs away to marry someone else, which means as soon as Mr Bennet dies he can dump them all out on the street and take the house for himself. What a guy!

Anyway, while all this is going on, Lizzie makes a new friend in Mr Wickham. He’s dashing, and charming, but kind of a hound dog. He has a big ol’ cry about how Mr Darcy has caused him “hardship”, and Lizzie just falls for it hook, line, and sinker (yes, for the “smart one”, she can be surprisingly dumb). Lizzie decides she doesn’t want a bar of Darcy anymore, which pleases Wickham to no end.



Then, out of the blue, the Bingleys skip town and Jane is devo. She tries following them to London, thinking she could reignite the spark and lure her lover back (all the while I’m screaming bitch-don’t-chase-a-man!) but his sister snubs her and she’s cut off from them entirely. When Lizzie visits Mr Collins and his new wife, they shed some light on the situation: apparently, Mr Darcy convinced Mr Bingley not to marry Jane because her family was poor (and kind of bogan, or whatever the old-timey equivalent of bogan is). And, in another case of terrible timing, Mr Darcy picks this very moment to show up and declare his love for Lizzie. Of course, she tells him to fuck right off.

You’d think that’s a pretty irreparably damaged relationship right there, but Mr Darcy writes a letter with a Very Good Explanation for everything, and Lizzie’s all “Oh, okay then!”. The next time they meet, she’s all set to open her heart to love… but she’s promptly distracted by her younger sister, Lydia, running off with Mr Wickham, that dastardly hound-dog, and (wait for it) they’re not married! Clutch my pearls! There’s a lot of hand-wringing at the prospect of Lydia losing her virginity out of wedlock. Mr Collins literally said she’d be better off dead, which I thought was a bit much. But this piece of “terrible” news actually gave rise to my favourite line in all of Pride And Prejudice:

“On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill, that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, ‘Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? – A glass of wine; – shall I get you one? – You are very ill!”

Pride And Prejudice (page 294)

I mean, bringing me a glass of wine would definitely be the way to win me over, so I can see why Lizzie went for him.

Anyway, Lizzie figures that Lydia’s supposed-disgrace means she’ll never see Mr Darcy again. I mean, if having a poor family was enough to put him off the idea of a marriage, having a harlot for a little sister has got to be some kind of romance death knell. But, to everyone’s surprise, Darcy steps the fuck up! He convinces Wickham to marry Lydia, “saving” her reputation, and pays off all his outstanding debts. Consider the day saved!



Bingley and Darcy come back to the ‘hood. Bingley’s seen the light, he proposes to Jane, and there is much rejoicing. Then, Darcy’s rich aunt starts sticking her nose in, worried that her favourite nephew is going to do something silly like marry a poor girl as well. Lizzie – as is her habit, by now – tells her to fuck off. Darcy proposes, she accepts, and everyone’s married and rich by the end. Happily ever after!

So, what did I think? Well, many things. Based on her reputation, I’d kind of expected Lizzie Bennet to be a bit more like Emma: disinterested in boys and marriage, bookish, strong-willed, self-determining. She is all of those things, I suppose, or almost, but not to the degree that I’d expected. I think my favourite Bennet was actually Lydia: the young, loud-mouthed, boy-crazy one. I feel like she would have been a dynamite sex-positive feminist on Twitter these days.

Austen was the master of hiding really heavy themes in plain sight, cloaking them in the social mores of her time. For instance, she presented all the parents as symbolically powerful but ultimately ineffectual (Emma’s Dad was a whiny hypochondriac, and Mr & Mrs Bennet were messy drama queens who played favourites with their offspring). She also poked holes in the idea that wealth and social standing were desirable qualities (Emma’s kindest and most wonderful friends were the poorest social outcasts; Collins and Wickham, despite their good reputations and prospects, were both revealed to be pretty rotten in the end). Plus, she carefully breaks down the social/economic complexities of courtship and marriage in a way that really impresses me. There’s very little in her books about romantic love, really, but a lot about politics, power, class, and community.



Her treatment of marriage is actually less gendered than I’d initially assumed it would be, too. Many of her men do, in fact, find themselves in want of a wife, and for the same reasons of poverty and disadvantage that led women to seek husbands. Look at how, say, Wickham needs to marry a woman of means and respectability to cover his own debts and excuse his past misdeeds. I mean, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that women’s financial security was wholly dependent on men at that time (most women didn’t have independent legal rights or access to the inheritance laws that had benefited only men until the end of the 19th century), but Austen found other ways to give women agency and power in her stories.

So, having written this intricate and complex novel, what did Austen do next? Well, she made some dumb decisions (not to be mean, but seriously). She sold the copyright to Thomas Egerton for £110. She wanted £150, but he bargained her down. In owning the copyright, Egerton owned all of the risk of publication (a notoriously money-losing venture) but he also owned all of the profit when Pride And Prejudice went gangbusters. Jan Fergus did some clever maths a few years back, and she worked out that Egerton raked in £450 from the first two editions alone, while Austen got not a penny. It seems incredible that one of the most recognisable authors in the English language earned so little from her most popular work, and I think it’s an important cautionary tale for all the incredible women writers out there – own your shit, ladies!



Now, this is where I’d typically list any adaptations of note, but for Pride And Prejudice there are just too damn many! And there are more released every single year. The enduring popularity of this story knows no bounds. A couple of my favourites include Bridget Jones’s Diary, which places the story in contemporary London, and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which is an unbelievably popular Austen-zombie-cannibal-ninja-ultraviolence mash-up. And, not satisfied to let the creatives have all the fun, scientists have got in on some Pride And Prejudice homages too. In 2010, a pheromone found in mouse urine was named “darcin”, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females (what an honour… kind of). And in 2016, a whole article in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases was dedicated to speculating as to the possible medical reasons the Bennets didn’t have any male children.

On the whole, I’m extremely glad I persisted with this classic. I think it’s another fine example of needing a book to come to you at the right time. I ended up enjoying Pride And Prejudice far more than I thought I would, and it’s one I’ll definitely re-read and re-visit in the future. I never thought I’d see myself say that out loud, let alone in writing, but there you have it: life isn’t always what you’d expect, and neither are books.

Note: in the end, I enjoyed Pride And Prejudice so much that it made the cut for my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Pride And Prejudice:

  • “Elizabeth Bennet is my spirit animal.” – Mary Hammond
  • “No thanks no review, this is stupid I don’t need to review a classic and I resent being held hostage to a review” – Jennifer Jones
  • “Y’all, errybody need to check out Lydia’s FINSTA. NSFW.” – Rebeca Reynolds
  • “Old nd good” – scott patterson
  • “Perfect gift for married co-worker” – KG
  • “Haven’t read it for 40 years, thought I’d try again. Still pretty good.” – Kindle Customer
  • “If you want to read a classic then this is for you but I wasn’t a fan. I’m not really big on romance and this seems heavy on romance a nd girl hates boy but then likes boy relationship centered.” – Mirashan Gregory
  • “This is the quintessential Day Time Soap Opera. 2 seasons or more neatly placed between the cover of a classic novel.” – Karen Marie review
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen rocks.” – Erin S.
  • “Pride and Prejudice is a very tiresome book. Much dialogue and very little action. Too much love and not enough Jesus.” – D
  • “Almost 400 pages of girls talking about which guy has more money and who they danced with. Not worth the paper it is written on.” – Amazon Customer
  • “A story of spoiled sisters and their attempts to be the bestest of the best in a time when how much money you had
matters more than love or morality.
 Seriously, the moral of the story seems to be, if a rich uncle comes calling, you best throw your daughters
at him until one sticks. Just a miserable, long story of some young women trying to find the right man to take care of them.” – JD Wohlever
  • “oh, this book is just awful. The author even insults her own people inside of this. There were several references to the British military that were insults back then; I forget what the are exactly. The characters themselves are never really developed in my opinion. The whole plot is this: girl sees rich guy and hates him because he is socially awKward. Rich guy actually loves girl and tries to tell her that. Girl mistreats the man because she’s blind to everything. Guy eventually has to spend money to get her to like him. They get married. End of story. This book is about a gold digger in all reality. It lacks anything that would make a book a classic. If you want to be driven insane, read this book.” – Not Trans Kieran


The Call Of The Wild – Jack London

Look at this pristine edition of The Call Of The Wild! I treated myself to a brand-new copy from a local indie bookstore. It’s another one that’s really tough to find second-hand, for some reason. This combo edition also includes White Fang, but I decided right at the outset that I wasn’t going to read that unless The Call Of The Wild was super-good and not too distressing. See, normally I’m not allowed to read books with dogs because I’m not equipped to deal with their inevitable death (why do authors love killing off dogs?!). With gritted teeth, I picked up Jack London’s best-known work…

I was right to be apprehensive. I’ll say this right at the outset: do not go into this book thinking it’s a heart-warming tale about a puppy who goes camping. Every page has dogs attacking humans, humans attacking dogs, dogs attacking each other… wahhhh! I know there are a lot of clever metaphors and allegories buried in the story, but that’s no fucking comfort to a dog-lover. Thankfully it’s very short (even shorter than Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde!), only 84 pages of torture. (Spoiler: I did not go on to read White Fang. I’ve quite had my fill of violence against animals, thank you.)

The Call Of The Wild is billed as an adventure novel, set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. London had spent a lot of time in that area himself; he once said “it was in the Klondike I found myself”. He stayed just long enough to get himself a nasty case of scurvy, which was quite common at the time (believe it or not, fresh produce was hard to come by in those Arctic winters, so workers usually missed their 2-and-5-a-day). Still, the experience made a real impression, and gave London enough material to write his book.

When he got back to California, he pitched his story to the San Francisco Bulletin, but they told him that “interest in Alaska has subsided in an amazing degree” and rejected him outright. He persisted, though, and ended up writing The Call Of The Wild in four installments for The Saturday Evening Post. They paid him $750 for his trouble, and he then accepted a further $2000 from Macmillan, who published it in book form in 1903. Nuts to the Bulletin editors who turned him down, because it hasn’t been out of print since.



The story opens in California, where the central character – Buck, a pampered St Bernard-Scotch Shepherd – is stolen and sold into service as an Alaskan sled dog. Sled dogs were in high demand during the Gold Rush. To even reach the Klondike, miners had to navigate what was called “Dead Horse Pass” (charming), so named for the many carcasses that had piled up along the route. The poor horsies couldn’t handle the steep ascents and the harsh climate, so strong dogs with thick fur were called into replace them.

Buck is forced to fight for survival in his new environment, and not just in the metaphorical draw-upon-your-inner-strength kind of way. The humans charged with his care starve him, keep him in a cage, and beat him senseless, teaching him what he calls “the law of the club” (yes, I’m already crying).

When he’s sold on again, this time to dispatchers who take him to the Klondike, he learns from the other dogs how to survive the cold nights and rugged terrain. He ends up beating the leader in a fight (gahhh, stop it!), and he assumes his position as the head of the pack. Success ain’t all it’s cracked up to be though, because he proves himself so valuable that he’s sold on into tougher circumstances, and then sold into tougher circumstances again. This is one corporate ladder you do not want to climb.



Finally, Buck encounters a decent human – John Thornton – and he is nursed back to health. He follows Thornton and his team as they pan for gold, but he gets to run around and explore his new home in the woods for himself. He makes friends with a local wolf pack (awww!), but always return home to camp because he’s come to love his new human (double awww!). You’d think London would end it there, everyone’s happy, but NOPE! One day, Buck returns to find his beloved human murdered by a local Native American tribe. Incensed, he goes on a violent killing spree of his own, taking his vengeance and scaring the pants off the survivors. Lacking other options, Buck joins the wolf pack full-time, answering (here it comes) the call of the wild.

The book was enormously popular upon publication (dear me, why?). Macmillan’s first print run of 10,000 copies sold out immediately. And that popularity has continued through to the present, where London’s work is still taught in schools and he’s earned himself a place in the American canon. The success of The Call Of The Wild is what prompted him to write White Fang: “I’m going to reverse the process,” he said, “instead of devolution… I’m going to give the evolution, the civilization of a dog.” That’s why the works are so often sold in a single volume. Perhaps White Fang is where I’d find the happy ending I was hoping for Buck, but I don’t trust London anymore.



The Call Of The Wild was also fairly controversial, because London had the gall to anthropomorphise a house pet. Critics said he was a “nature faker” (ooh, burn!) for attributing human feelings to a dog. But really, London was just calling upon the oldest form of storytelling, our fables and fairy-stories that commonly attribute feelings and speech to animals, to send the reader some greater message or moral. In this case, it would seem that London’s message was Capitalism + Industrialisation = Bad. Buck had to be forced to give up his creature comforts, but once he does that his instinct takes over and he returns to a more “natural” way of life. He shows us that civilisation is a thin veneer, easily broken, and animals (including humans) are wild and primal at their core. He inverts the coming-of-age tropes, and calls upon a lot of epic and hero archetypes, with Buck being unmasked (rather than civilised) by his journey. London may have ripped out my heart, but it would seem he was damn clever in the way he did it.

I’ve got a pretty strong stomach, on the whole, but my soft spot for dogs made The Call Of The Wild a fucking difficult read. I can appreciate what London was doing, but for me this book was right up there with A Clockwork Orange on the confronting scale, perhaps even exceeding it. Really, its only saving grace was that it was so short! I’m not sure I could have coped with much more. It was beautifully written in parts, the scene-setting was incredibly evocative, but why couldn’t London have tortured oysters or skunks or something instead? Dog-lovers, beware: this is not the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Call Of The Wild:

  • “This book gives some insight on the golf rush days in Alaska and some of the hardships. Also it is the first book about the feelings of a dog.” – spike1
  • “It’s bad to me i don’t like it at all people dead
Its crazy right yeah ik man ik man” – Amazon Customer
  • “The font is 9 pt or less. The story is timeless, I just don’t want to go blind trying to read it to my grand kids.” – bad smell Mel
  • “All Jack London fans will like this one” – Don Boddeker
  • “Fun novel and dogbook. Want pictures.” – Maiden of Honour
  • “Wow, 114 years old, no apocalypse,no zombies, no EMP. Just a story about a dog, and what a dog! Awesome !” – Kindle Customer
  • “Bought for my nerdy daughter.” – Derby
  • “Down loaded the audio books for the dogs while i am away. They love it!” – Amazon Customer
  • “Excellent short novel about gold rush days in Alaska. While a jr. high student could read it without difficulty, it still was a wonderful introduction to Alaska before a cruise there.” – Bruce Wolf
  • “Teeny tiny print is pathetic.” – Robert Phillips
  • “now i know why they say this book is read by so many inmates,they have to change their way of living when they are put in jail” – toni moon


The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

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

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

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



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

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

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

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

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



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

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

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

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

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



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

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

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

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

Mark Twain

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

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



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

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

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

Boston Transcript (1885)

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

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

Mark Twain (1885) – funny bastard, eh?

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

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

Note: I enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn SO MUCH that I ended up including it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:

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


Kim – Rudyard Kipling

I’d always thought Rudyard Kipling was a poet, but here we are. You’re never too old to learn! He was born in Bombay in 1865, and worked as a journalist in Lahore, until he began writing stories and poems about India. He wound up winning a Nobel Prize for his literature, so it would seem he was pretty damn good at it. He’s probably better known for The Jungle Book and Wee Willie Winkie, but I decided to read Kim, first published in 1901.

The blurb on the back of this edition is hectic, and I had no idea what to make of it:

“Kim, a young Irish orphan, is brought up in the native quarter of Lahore. While he is accompanying a Tibetan lama on his search for the River of Immortality, Kim is picked up by the British and groomed for the Secret Service. His first assignment is to capture the papers of a Russian spy in the Himalayas…”

Kim, Pan Classics edition (1978)

That makes it sound like some kind of mash-up of The Alchemist and The Thirty-Nine Steps, right? Actually, that’s probably not far off…

So, Kim‘s story takes place against the backdrop of “The Great Game” (which I thought meant chess, but apparently not). That’s what we now call the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia, around the time of the Second and Third Afghan Wars (late 1800s, basically). Kipling loved India, his homeland, and right off the bat he gives you gorgeous portraits of the people, and the landscape, with particular focus on the bazaars and life on the road.

Kim is a young orphaned boy, his Irish father and mother having died in abject poverty. He etches out a living for himself running around the streets of Lahore, begging and doing small errands for the local horse traders and other sketchy types. He befriends an old Tibetan lama, who is on a quest to free himself from the “Wheel of Things” (yeah, alright mate) and find the “River of the Arrow” (bloody hippies). Kim thinks that doesn’t sound too bad, and he doesn’t have much else going on, so he ships out with the old guy, becoming his disciple and helping him along the road. He also takes on a secret mission from the local bigwig, to carry a message to the head of the British intelligence in Umballa, but that seems pretty incidental to the road-trip… for now.



Kim carries all of his father’s papers with him, which turns out to be a bad move. A regimental chaplain recognises him as the son of one of their soldiers, and ships him off to boarding school in Lucknow. The lama is pretty bummed to be separated from his only disciple, but agrees to pay for the boy’s education and figures they’ll hook back up again later. Not only does Kim stay in touch with the lama, he also keeps his finger in with all his Secret Service connections, and trains himself in espionage on the sly. Hey, a boy’s got to have a hobby!

The military decides that three years of schooling will suffice, and Kim is appointed to a government position, with a bit of a holiday to get himself ready. He uses that time to catch up with his old mate the lama, and they trek to the Himalayas. Here’s where his worlds collide: the lama unwittingly pisses off the Russian intelligence agents, and Kim uses the opportunity to pick up a bunch of important papers and staff to pass back to the British as he’s rescuing his pal.

And cue an existential crisis: the lama starts wailing about how he has “gone astray”, because he can hardly expect to find this “River of the Arrow” in the mountains, so he orders his travelling companions to take them back. This suits Kim just fine, because it allows him to drop the Russian documents back to his British bosses.



Now, the lama gets his happy ending: he finds his river, achieves Enlightenment, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s up to the reader to decide Kim‘s fate. Either he chooses to stick with his old mate and live the life of an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist, or he sets off again to do more spying. Kipling was very deliberately vague on which way it goes. All Kim had to say to the lama in the closing passage is: “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela.” (Meaning “I am not a master. I am your servant.”) So, that’s about as clear as mud…

If I’m being honest, a lot of this plot went over my head as I was reading. I really only started to connect the dots when I was reading summaries online later. It’s like A Passage To India all over again. I just didn’t get enough of this story to offer any brilliant insights – sorry!

Kim is considered by many to be Kipling’s magnum opus, but that is (of course) hotly debated in some circles. A lot of the controversy seems to center around whether it should be considered children’s literature (I say no: if it went over my head, I don’t know what hope an eight-year-old has). It’s definitely an adventure story, a bildungsroman, and – drawing heavily upon Kipling’s own experiences growing up in India (including the clash of East and West) – it all takes place against this backdrop of politics and military conflict. You could probably spend years studying this book academically, because there’s a lot to look at.

Academics that have given it a gander have spent a lot of time considering Kipling’s depictions of race. The introduction to this edition says: “The once fashionable charge that Kipling was a particularly unpleasant apologist for imperialism, brutal, racist, and jingo, was always a caricature; yet there are parts of his work that give even his admirers pause.” And I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Even though the language seemed more contemporary than I would have otherwise expected, some of the stuff around Kim being a white boy who appeared brown gave me the icks.



I think you need to know what you’re getting in to when you pick up Kim, and you need to be deeply invested in the time period, the setting, the culture, and the politics, in order to fully appreciate the story. For the rest of us, I think you can probably pick up just about everything you need by reading a few summaries online, and scanning some extracts with Kipling’s particularly poetic and beautiful descriptions of India, for which he’s well known. For me, Kim was a pretty book, an interesting book, but probably not one I’ll pick up again.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Kim:

  • “The footnotes of the Kindle Edition don’t work properly. Tapping a word gives the footnote of the next word which is very inconvenient.” – T.O.
  • “The story is good just not the easiest story to read, maybe I had a bad week. I normally love Rudyard Kiplings work. I wish it was an awesome book with my name as the title. It’s not even a girl called Kim lol” – KimBuc2
  • “no written in any language I can fathom.” – 1thru5
  • “quick service good price great writing I didn’t get every reference” – bojangleshiker
  • “It’s old. It’s “racist”. It is an absolutely wonderful book !” – Karen W
  • “I had heart that Kim was one of the best books of all time. Had to wait 2 months for library to acquire it.



    Have never been so disappointed in anything. Cults, voodoo, spells, magic, demonic activity, caste system, blasphemy, abuse, violence, superstition, humanism (worship of certain humans), depression,… UGH!!



    WHAT A WASTE OF TIME!! DON’T BOTHER READING THIS.” – DeAnne


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