Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 1 of 2)

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

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

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

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




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

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

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

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

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




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

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

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

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

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




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

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

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

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

Mark Twain

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

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




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

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

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

Boston Transcript (1885)

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

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

Mark Twain (1885) – funny bastard, eh?

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:

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


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 bboy’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


The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Keeper-Upperers, I made a whoopsy! Back when I reviewed Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, I mistakenly labelled it as the only children’s book on The List – I forgot entirely about this bad boy! The Wind In The Willows is a children’s story written by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. Set in a rural part of Edwardian England, it follows the adventures (or misadventures, as it were) of four anthropomorphised animals: Mole, Rat, Badger, and (be still my beating heart) Toad. Having not been totally Disney-fied, it hasn’t quite reached the pervasive popularity of Alice, but I’d say it’s about on par in terms of loveliness.

Now, oddly for such a delightful little tome, The Wind In The Willows was actually born of some pretty miserable circumstances. Kenneth Grahame had a pretty rough trot, on the whole. His mother died when he was five, and his father had a pretty hectic drinking problem, so the kids were dumped with their grandmother. It was all rather shitful, but Grahame made the most of it. His Grandma lived near the Thames and he loved exploring the area, mucking around, as kids do. He survived his rough start, and went on to score a pretty swanky secretary job at the Bank Of England. He married at the age of 40, and the following year his wife had their only child, a sickly boy named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born premature and blind in one eye.

Raising Alastair was tough, and a few years after his birth Grahame decided he was jack of the rat race. He resigned from his position at the bank and moved the whole family back to the country, where he felt most at home. He spent a lot of his time “simply messing about in boats”, and began expanding the bedtime stories he had made up for Alastair into a manuscript. The characters of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger had been fixtures in the Grahame household during Alastair’s childhood; even when Papa Kenneth went off on one of his boating trips, he would write letters home containing tales of their adventures for his son. So, The Wind In The Willows must’ve been a walk-up start, right? Kid tested, and approved?

Well, not really: a number of publishers rejected the manuscript outright. Everyone was expecting books more in the vein of his previous works (he’d already published The Golden Age, and Dream Days, by this point), and they were sorely disappointed. When he finally found a publisher willing to take a chance on his children’s story, the critics panned it… but the public loved it! Bookstores kept selling out, so multiple print-runs were required, in quick succession. Plus, it got a ringing endorsement from President Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to Grahame to say he had “read it and reread it, and [had] come to accept the characters as old friends”. That’s one heck of a blurb, eh?




I’m with Teddy: it’s a brilliant book. And it’s certainly not “just” a children’s story. There’s plenty in there for adults, like this gem:

“The best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”

Page 13, The Wind In The Willows

The story starts with Mole, who decides he can’t be fucked cleaning his messy house, so he abandons it altogether and goes to crash on a mate’s couch. HUGE respect, straight off – I feel that! He and his mate, Rat, have a wonderful time boating every day and living together (a more contemporary interpretation of this story offers a queer reading of their relationship, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day). They decide to visit their mate, Toad.

Now, Toad’s a real larrikin; he has a tendency to jump on every fad, and the latest is his growing obsession with motorcars. He’s kind of a garbage person, with his criminal tendencies and blatant fat-phobia and all, but he’s also debonair and charming in his over-the-top way, and anyone who says he isn’t their favourite character is lying.

Mole decides he would also like to meet the elusive Badger, but gets really lost trying to find his house. Rat rescues him from freezing to death in the woods, and on their way home they end up stumbling upon Badger’s abode anyway. He offers them shelter from the snowstorm outside, and winds up joining their growing posse.





Meanwhile, Toad’s obsession with motorcars quickly spirals out of control. While Badger, Ratty, and Mole are sitting around drinking tea like grown-ups, Toad steals and crashes several cars, winds up hospitalised on more than one occasion, and has to pay out big money in fines. The crew holds an intervention for him, but he escapes and steals a convertible for one last joyride (that, of course, lands him in jail). He eventually escapes, and has all kinds of mishaps and misadventures making his way home. When he rejoins his mates, he convinces them to gang up and banish the weasles and stoats that have been squatting in his home during his incarceration absence. Toad learns a few important lessons about humility and friendship, and they all live happily ever after.

I thought The Wind In The Willows was going to be a light, easy read, and it was… but not as light or as easy as I was expecting. It seemed to require a lot more focus than Alice, but (granted) I did have a nasty head cold at the time I was reading it and my brain felt like Swiss cheese, so it might not have been entirely Grahame’s fault. I didn’t have it as bad as some folks: a historian was found tortured and murdered in his home in 2016, because a thief had broken in, intent on finding the rare first edition hidden somewhere in the house. (Seriously, this actually happened!)

The Wind In The Willows would be a great one to read out loud to kids, but that’s not all it’s good for. It’s also a great pick for adults who need a little bit of a break from lofty literature (like I did after last week). And I’m glad Grahame managed to turn his shitty life circumstances into a wonderful and enduring story that has become such a major source of joy in so many childhoods – good on him!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Wind In The Willows:

  • “The plot was awful it was silly and profane. Don’t you dare waste your time on this book please heed me don’t download this horrible awful mean.nasty ugly book!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Shannon
  • “I have no idea how to read or write. Was disappointed when this wasn’t hentai.” – F.T.
  • “This is my very favorite book. Nice Kindle version. The illustrations look good on my iPad.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I am a young reader and I found NO interest in this book.
I think that this should have more drama.” – garcia


What Makes A Book A Classic?

What makes a book a classic? There are about as many answers to that question as there are booklovers. When I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, my goal was to catch up on all the classic books that everyone else seemed to have already read, even though I only had the most nebulous idea of what that actually meant. In categorising my reviews, I’ve used the rough guesstimation that books over 100 years old that are still in circulation must be classics, but over time I’ve come to realise that this might not be the only measure. So, let’s take a look at this eternal question and answer it for ourselves: what makes a book a classic? 

What Makes A Book A Classic? - Text Overlaid on Collage of Penguin Classics Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Is “Classic” Even The Right Word To Use?

First off, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Classic books are those we hold up as being exemplary or noteworthy in some fashion (more on that in a minute). Whether or not a book is considered a “classic” will change over time, between readers, and so forth. It’s a floating target, unlike related concepts like “the canon”.

The canon is more like a specific list of books that are considered “essential” in our understanding of a period, area, or group. That’s why you might hear reference to the “Western canon” (which would include books like David Copperfield, The Divine Comedy, and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn), or the “African American canon” (which would include books like Beloved, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God). The canon is usually presented as a reading list, by a university or publisher. Consider it the cousin that comes to your classic books barbecue wearing an Armani suit.

Is every classic book written by a dead, white man?

Let’s address the big, hairy problem right up front: too often, when we talk about “classic” books, we’re talking about the ones written by dead white men. Straight men, non-disabled men, and men of wealth and power. There are exceptions, of course – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, or the works of the Brontë sisters – but for the most part, it’s privileged white dudes all the way down.

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who honestly believes that those men are the only ones who wrote books worthy of being designated as classics, so why are writers of other identities so often overlooked? Reasons abound, to be honest, and I could probably write a thesis on the topic. For now, suffice to say, I think it’s a combination of a few factors: historically, white men were the only ones who had the opportunity to write (by virtue of their wealth and power) and the networks to disseminate their stories; the stories they published reflected a prevailing worldview, which made them popular; and the ivory towers were mostly staffed by more white men, who felt most comfortable teaching their students books written by people who looked like them (meaning students of that particular identity were more likely to take up a pen, see-it-to-be-it and all). On and on the cycle goes…





So, we must do what we can to redress the balance. Make sure that the criteria you choose to judge for yourself what makes a book a “classic” isn’t exclusionary. When you find yourself perusing shelves of classics, look for the works by women, by people of colour, by people with disabilities, by LGBTIQ+ people – any work from a perspective that has been marginalised in the past. Request those books, review them, recommend them, and make sure they get the recognition they deserve. By the magic of the internet, these works are now reaching previously-unimaginable audiences, and the publishers and gatekeepers are hearing the demands of readers to expand their catalogue. Keep fighting the good fight!

Criteria to Consider When Defining Classic Books

Let’s get to the fun stuff! How do we decide whether a book should be called a “classic”?

Age

This is the most common, and most obvious, criterion: age. Or, put another way, we can be fairly confident that a book that has endured for decades or centuries – that has “stood the test of time”, if you will – is a classic. It’s a great idea because it’s easily quantifiable; there’s nothing subjective about how many years a book has been around, which means fewer arguments. But how old does a book have to be to be a “classic”, exactly? I used the nice round figure of 100 years, for simplicity, but that (of course) shifts year-by-year, and it’s a little long in some people’s estimation. Some experts suggest “generations”, rather than an exact number of years, because books that endure past those who were alive when it was first published must have something good going on. It’s an idea.

Of course, either yardstick would exclude books that many booklovers consider to be classics regardless: think To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Grapes of Wrath. That’s why some have suggested the creation of a new category, the “modern classic”, for those books that aren’t quite old enough to be considered classics proper, but are well on their way.



Literary Merit

I think we can all agree that simply being old isn’t enough: what else makes a book a classic? The next most obvious criterion is whether or not it’s any good. An old book can hang around for lots of reasons, but in order for us to consider it a “classic” it should probably pass some test of merit. I’m sure you can see why this is problematic, though; gauging the quality of a book is deeply subjective (just ask anyone who’s been to a book club!).

A comprehensive discussion on how to determine literary merit is probably a bit beyond me and my scope here on my lil’ blog. What I will say is that I think it’s important to recognise that “good” doesn’t necessarily mean “readable”. For instance, I can acknowledge that The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has a lot of literary merit, while also simultaneously believing that it sucked from a contemporary reader’s standpoint. A book’s literary merit and whether it is fun to read are two completely separate matters. And, failing a final ruling from an all-powerful dictator, it’s probably going to be up to each of us to decide for ourselves what constitutes “literary merit” and whether a book has it or not (for the time being).

Cultural Contribution, Significance, and Popularity

Books don’t exist in a vacuum: they affect the world around them, and in turn take on new meanings when the world around them changes. Take, for instance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. His themes and imagery of surveillance, censorship, misinformation and government control are constantly evoked in political debates, and his work has taken on scary new resonance over the last few years. There are others, too, like Catch-22 or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that are so pervasive they actually become part of our cultural lexicon. We continue to read and reflect on these books because they’ve made such significant contributions to our world; they’ve become, in effect, household names.

Within literature itself, the significance and popularity of a book is often marked by its influence on other, subsequent works. Sometimes this as obvious as a direct adaptation (look at how many contemporary takes we have on Pride And Prejudice, for example, and Little Women). Often, though, it’s much more subtle, with recent works calling upon or emulating styles and themes of classic books. I think it’s only fair that we consider these kinds of literary and cultural contributions when deciding what makes a book a classic, as they make it possible for a book to a book to retain its popularity over time.



Historical Record and Influence

One of the most wonderful things about the written word is the way that it endures, and what it can tell us about the past. Even though, as we’ve acknowledged, perspectives on the past have all to often come from privileged white men with their own inherent biases, they still managed to record details that might have otherwise been lost, and we’re better able now than ever before to think critically about them as sources of historical record. Consider classic books such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which has taught us so much about the Middle Ages, or more recently the works of Dickens and the Brontës, which have given us a multi-layered understanding of the mores of Victorian England.

Some classic books take it one step further, and actually influence the course of history. The best example of that has to be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, often called The Great American Novel, and credited – by Abraham Lincoln, no less! – with prompting the American civil war and the crusade to end slavery. It’s a high bar, no doubt, but this kind of historical influence is surely at least part of what makes a book a classic.

How Italo Calvino Defined Classic Books

Unsurprisingly, writers have thought a lot about this question (because, really, it concerns them most of all). Italo Calvino, a beautiful Italian author, wrote a whole book on the subject – Why Read The Classics? – and gave us a list of definitions that he felt, considered as a whole, would bring us closer to understanding what makes a book a classic. I’ve reproduced a few of my favourites here:

“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”

“A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.”

“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”

“Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.”

“‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”

Italo Calvino, “Why Read The Classics?”

He concludes that a universal definition of a classic book is basically impossible, and “there is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics”.





So, what makes a book a classic? I’m with Calvino, it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide for ourselves. That said, I think age, literary merit, cultural contribution, and historical influence are all good factors to consider. I think it’s also important that we do everything we can to ensure that we don’t end up lost in the cock forest (as Benjamin Law once so delightfully put it), and include classic books written by women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. What do you think makes a book a classic? Tell me in the comments (or share your thoughts over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne

When you pick up a book called The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, you figure that you’re going to read all about… well, the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, who was probably a top bloke. But you’d be wrong! Laurence Sterne has some fun in store for us, my friend…

This book was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759 and the remaining seven coming out over the following years. In the mid-1760s, a lot of imitators and copycats came out of the woodwork, trying to cash in on Sterne’s success, so he personally signed every single copy of the Volume 5 print-run, ensuring that his loyal readers knew they were getting the real deal. (Turns out John Green wasn’t the first to do it after all, ha!)

The introductory essays in this edition use a lot of words to say… well, not much, really. They’re probably super-interesting to English majors and people who have spent their lives in academia, but for the uninitiated they’re pretty impenetrable. You probably won’t get much out of them unless you’re already very familiar with Sterne in his contemporaries; otherwise, you’re probably better off perusing Laurence Sterne’s Wikipedia page instead, or reading this Very Good Review from KUWTP 😉

So, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, as we’ve established, purports to be an auto-biography of its titular character, but that’s a fucking joke. Ha ha bloody ha, Sterne! You figure out pretty quickly that Tristram’s defining characteristic is that he can’t tell a straightforward story, and he goes off in tangents that make Mrs Dalloway feel like a walk in the park.





This makes for a very slow read. By the half-way point, about ten chapters in to Volume IV, Tristram had just been born and named. That’s as far as we get into the “life and opinions” of Tristram Shandy over the course of 260 pages. Yawn! The narrator spends most of that time prattling on about his father (Walter), his mother (unnamed, sexist!), his Uncle Toby, and the servant Trim. He makes a whole lot of references to Shakespeare (the local parson is named Yorick, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough), and he also borrows heavily from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. There really isn’t all that much life-and-opinion-ing at all, to be honest, even once Tristram’s life actually begins.

I’m not ashamed to admit I gave up on the footnotes. There were just SO MANY! I got carpal tunnel from flicking back and forth every time one appeared. I took to just skimming over them all before I began each chapter, figuring I’d catch enough give me the context I needed… but by the last few volumes, I’d given up on them altogether. Seriously, there were footnotes within footnotes! It was footnote-ception! It reminded me a lot of The Divine Comedy in that regard.

It also reminded me a lot of Moby Dick, in terms of pacing: slow, with bursts of action, and lots of digression. If you enjoyed Moby Dick stylistically (not just for the swashbuckling), then I’d recommend The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to you in a heartbeat. Most of the “action” is domestic in nature, often centering on arguments between the cynical Papa Walter and the optimistic (read: naive) Uncle Toby.

But those small moments of interest are separated by Tristram’s elongated, bloated musings on everything: from sex, to insults, to the influence of one’s name, to the shape of one’s nose, to the science of obstetrics, to strategic siege warfare, to the state of philosophical thought… in the end, the only actual events Sterne describes are Tristram’s birth (where his nose was crushed by the doctor’s forceps, to his father’s great dismay – I think “nose” might have been a euphemism for “cock”), a couple of other minor accidents he had growing up, and an adolescent trip to France. The rest of the book is all miscellaneous ramblings.





As ever, when it comes to lofty classics, I’m sure I’m missing the point. Over the last hundred years or so, Sterne has been lauded for his “masterpiece of bawdy humour and rich satire”, and “gloriously disordered narrative”. Apparently, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is “a joyful celebration of endless possibilities of the art of fiction [and] also a wry demonstration of its limitations”. I’m sure all that is true… but I’m not the only one who didn’t get it. His contemporaries and the literary critics of his time did not like his shit at all. They slammed him for his “obscenity”, to the point of defaming him with ongoing widespread accusations of “mindless plagiarism” and “artistic dishonesty”. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was pretty popular with the hoi-polloi, but it was a long time (literally centuries) before academics and critics accepted him. I’ve also seen this book called “the first post-modernist novel”, which (given it was published in the 1700s) begs the question: can a book even be post-modern if modernism hasn’t happened yet? No one can give me a straight answer on this, which leads me to believe they are all talking out of their arses.

In sum, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is not for beginners. If you’re new to the classics, or even to 18th century literature specifically, this is not the one you want to start with. Gulliver’s Travels is from the same period, but infinitely more readable. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a Serious Book For Grown Ups(TM), best read and understood by people who have devoted their lives to studying English literature and history. If you like to read for fun, if you like getting lost in a good page-turner, heck – if you like it when the narrator sticks to the damn point: this is not the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

  • “I had no idea what the author was talking about. I just read it to make me fall asleep whenever I had insomnia.” – Loretta
  • “It’s probably great, but I didn’t notice it was in German, a language I don’t know.” – Marie Brack
  • “What in the hell was this lunatic yammering about for all those 650 pages? What is the deal with his obsession with noses, penises, and hobby-horses, hobby-horses, hobby-horses? Why does anyone consider it amusing when a writer keeps telling you he’s going to get somewhere, but never does? Why is it entertaining at all to have blank chapters? Why is that cute? Why is that interesting? Who finds this funny? Who finds anything funny here at all? Why does this book of endless, mindless prattle, blabber, and piffle tickle anyone at all? Who finds digression to be enjoyable in literature? You? Why? Why? Tell me!

    

I checked the ratings on Goodreads. This is what it showed:



    5 stars: 33%, 4901

    4 stars: 28%, 4064

    3 stars: 22%, 3268

    2 stars: 9%, 1414
    
1 star: 5%, 848



    Meaning: 95% of these readers are flock-following, digression-loving, hobby-horse riding loonies who have swallowed the Kool-aid. There is nothing here but vacuous thundergunk. Pure, putrid unentertaining garbage. If I would have laughed once – just once – during the reading of this book, I would have given it a whole extra star, but it couldn’t even do that. I give him one star for spelling Tristram’s name right, and even then, it’s a made-up name anyway, so I may have been hoodwinked as well.” – Martin M. Bodek

  • “English humour without a plot line” – Amazon Customer


Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but let the booklover who is without sin cast the first stone. This cover of Cold Comfort Farm looked really cute when I first pulled it from the shelf, but when I examined it closely… I didn’t get it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It seemed to be a series of in-joke caricatures that made no sense to me whatsoever. Then, the introduction kept calling Cold Comfort Farm a “comic” novel and it included all of these excerpts… but none of them were funny? Apparently, Gibbons sought to parody the “rural” genre, which I’ve never heard of, let alone read. None of this boded well.

Now, I’m going to assume that most of you have never heard of Cold Comfort Farm either. I certainly hadn’t before I pulled together The List. Stella Gibbons seems to be the poor cousin of early 20th century authors, ignored by academics and readers alike. Cold Comfort Farm was her first book, published in 1932, and she went on to write 23 additional novels in her lifetime but this is the only one that remains in print. Speaking of her first book, she once said:

“[Cold Comfort Farm is like] some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore; skipping about, and reminding you of the days when you were a bright young thing. To him, and his admirers, you have never grown up… The old monster has also overlain all my other books, and if I do happen to glance at him occasionally, I am filled by an incredulous wonder that I could have once been so light-hearted.”

So, yeah, she was pretty over it, like a would-be rockstar that only ever had one hit song and was forced to play it ad infinitim for the rest of his career. Most people who have heard of Stella Gibbons don’t even realise that she wrote anything else.

Even in her own time, she wasn’t all that popular with her contemporaries. Virginia Woolf once wrote to Elizabeth Bowen, after Gibbons won a literary prize:

“I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”

BURN! But the disdain was mutual: Gibbons refused to join literary circles and cliques, knowing full well that she wasn’t making any friends for herself when she satirised their work. She just didn’t give a fuck at all, tbh. As per the introduction:

“To satirise the sexual values of DH Lawrence at this time was to outlaw oneself deliberately from any intellectual elite. Intellectuals were enslaved to Lawrence – especially the men, of course, for whom his gospel of sexual freedom chimed very nicely with what they actually wanted to do.”

I think you can see what I’m working up to here: Stella Gibbons was a bad bitch who called ’em how she saw ’em, and she wrote Cold Comfort Farm with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. Spoiler alert: it is actually funny! I’d say it lands somewhere between Jane Austen and Fawlty Towers. I really enjoyed it, in spite of myself (and its cover – maybe there is something to that whole “not-judging-a-book” business after all…).


To the story: it is set in some unspecified future time period, shortly after “the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of 1946” (bear in mind that Gibbons was writing in the early 1930s, and had no idea what was coming world-war-wise). The book’s heroine, Flora Poste, finishes school only to find herself suddenly orphaned at the ripe old age of 19 years. She has no means of supporting herself, being as she says “possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living”. What’s a girl to do? Find a rich relative and mooch off them until she can secure a satisfactory husband, of course!

“No limits are set, either by society or one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives.” – Flora Poste (Cold Comfort Farm)

She turns down offers of bed and board from several well-to-do cousins, for one reason or another, and eventually settles on “visiting” her (very) distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm (some way outside the fictional village Howling, Sussex). They agree to take her in so that they may atone for some unspecified wrong they wrought upon her father years ago. On the farm lives the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, the whole extended family of the Starkadders, and their stuff – and they are all BAT. SHIT. CRAZY.

Flora, not one to muck around, sets about civilising them all and teaching them about sponges and contraception and other modern conveniences that would make their farm less of a hell-hole (and them a little more… presentable). She’s basically Mary Poppins, bringing metropolitan values and comforts to the sticks.

It’s not a straightforward story to read, for a few reasons. The story goes in bursts and starts, takes weird turns, and never really provides a satisfactory ending. In fact, it’s kind of like someone telling you their dream at times (but a funny one, not one that bores the pants off you). You also have to translate some of the fake idioms and slang, which Gibbons used to parody the novelists that used phonics to portray accents and local dialects (looking at you, DH Lawrence!). An example: “mollocking” is Seth’s favourite activity, and Gibbons never tells you exactly what it is… except that it always seems to precede the pregnancy of a maid (HA!). But don’t let the threat of made-up vernacular put you off: it’s still infinitely more readable than the modernist novels published around the same time (*cough*Mrs Dalloway*cough*).


Gibbons tried to capitalise on what little momentum Cold Comfort Farm generated; she published a collection of short stories – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1940, and then another – Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1949, but neither of them made much of a ripple. Still, the original novel continued on its merry way, and it has been adapted for the screen several times (including twice by the BBC). It hasn’t shaken the world: I’d probably call it one of the best classics you’ve never heard of.

So, yes, I must concede, my initial impressions were totally inaccurate. Cold Comfort Farm is fucking hilarious. It’s clever and sarcastic and satirical, but I’m hesitant to provide you with many (any!) excerpts to back up my claims, because the introduction tried to do that and failed so spectacularly. Cold Comfort Farm’s humour is entirely contextual; the only way to really “get it” is to read the book in its entirety. I completely agree, however, with the handful of fans out there who say that it is criminally underrated (much like one of my other favourites), and my not having encountered it before now seems an absolute travesty. It’s definitely worth a look if you can find a copy – tell a friend!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

  • “I just am not in the mood for so much drama” – Ursula Guevara
  • “Bored me to tears…too long and meaningless. A young girl with nothing to do with her life takes over others. There’s a secret in her family’s past that is not revealed by the end of the story” – Monica
  • “Not that great” – margaret murphy
  • “If you are a fan of Cold Comfort Farm, you will like this book.” – Ms Lauri Gillam
  • “Sadly, no explicit sex, but terrific humor” – Francis Assaf

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

If I was all hung up on being technically correct (pfft, you guys wouldn’t believe it was me), this post would be called “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver”. That was the title Jonathan Swift chose for this novel, published under a pseudonym in 1729. He chose to use a pen name because his work was full of political commentary and satire, and his real name was closely associated with the Tories (who had fallen into disrepute, imagine that). He said he wrote the world to “vex the world rather than divert it”. But as time went on, more and more people referred to it as simply Gulliver’s Travels, and here we are.

Gulliver’s Travels reads like the travel blog of a bloke who gallivanted around the world in the 1700s, when atlases were woefully incomplete. The story kicks off with his first voyage, which he dates as occurring in 1699. His ship is wrecked (oh, yeah, you need to know right from the outset that Gulliver is super unlucky), and he washes ashore in the strange land of Lilliput. It is inhabited by a race of tiny people, all less than six inches tall. At first, they’re totally cool with this random giant (Gulliver) showing up in their ‘hood, but they’re (understandably) fucking terrified of the power he wields over them with his size. He learns that they’re kind of loopy, on the whole, and they focus on trivial things. Prime example: they’ve long been engaged in out-and-out military warfare with a neighbouring society of equally-tiny people, because they crack open their eggs at the opposite end. All things considered, Gulliver doesn’t really fit in with the Lilliputians, and he gets the fuck out of Dodge.

Not one to be put-off (oh, yeah, old mate Gulliver is also quite slow on the uptake), he sets out on another voyage in 1702. This time, his fellow sailors abandon him on a peninsula in North Africa. This is pretty much Opposite Land after Lilliput, because the farmer that finds him is 72ft tall and the grass seems as high as the trees back in England. Gulliver – now teeny-tiny, in relative terms – is treated as a side-show curiosity by the giants that take him in, and he is eventually sold as a pet to the Queen of their realm. After a few more adventures (including – and I’m not kidding, I swear – a fight with a gargantuan wasp and an escapade with a monkey), the box that Gulliver’s been living in is picked up by a seagull and dropped out to sea. There, he is rescued by some sailors, regular-sized ones, who return him safely to England once more.


Remember how I said Gulliver is slow on the uptake? Yeah, well, his travels don’t end there. In 1706, he sets off again, and this time his ship is attacked by pirates. This dude must’ve been cursed! He finds himself marooned on a rocky island near India, in a kingdom of people obsessed with music, mathematics, and astronomy… in theory. They’re all book-smart, he quickly finds, but not so good with the practical living. He helpfully points out to the reader that they taught him an important lesson about the blind pursuit of science and art without practical results (and, yes, this was Swift making one of those political points of his about bureaucracy, and the Royal Society’s controversial experiments), before making his way home…

… but not for long. Full of impractical wanderlust-bravado, Gulliver heads back out, this time as the captain of a ship, only to have his crew commit mutiny and abandon him on the first lump of sand they find. That’s where he finds a race of deformed savage human-esque creatures (the “Yahoos”), and he’s rescued by a race of talking horses (the “Houyhnhnms”). I don’t think I need to point out the metaphor here, because Swift hits you over the head with it repeatedly until the end of the book. It’s basically Planet of the Apes, but with horsies. Gulliver lives among the Houyhnhnms (even though they’re highly suspicious of him, with the resemblance he bears to their Yahoo mortal enemies, of course), and he hangs around for a long, long time. Eventually, they kick him out for being too Yahoo-y, and he gets home only to find that he is now repulsed by his own kind. He lives out the rest of his days in his stables, ignoring his wife and chit-chatting to the horses about life and philosophy and whatever. The end.

By now, a lot of the structural elements of Gulliver’s Travels have become stock-standard, but at the time they were downright revolutionary. There’s a clear downward spiral, as the causes of Gulliver’s “travels” become more and more malignant: shipwrecked, abandoned, boarded by pirates, mutinied by his own crew. As that plays out, Gulliver himself devolves from a cheery optimist to a pompous misanthrope. And each section of the novel forms the equal but opposite of the previous part: the Lilliputians are tiny, but then Gulliver finds himself in a society where he’s the tiny one, and so on and so forth.


I can’t say I liked Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because I got increasingly pissed off at the fact that Gulliver seems to completely forget all about his wife and family. Mrs Gulliver is the most sympathetic character in the whole story, no shit. Even though he comes home in the end, he’s spent too much time on Planet Of The Horses and he decides that she’s an “odious Yahoo”, and refuses to have anything to do with her. Sometimes, if he feels particularly benevolent, he’ll “permit” her to sit with him at dinner, as long as she stays at the opposite end of the table and he can stuff his nose with “rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves” to mask her human stench. Oh, and he commands her to answer any questions with the “utmost brevity”, so he doesn’t have to put up with her yammering on. What a guy!

I wondered why more of the book didn’t feel familiar, because I’d watched a film adaptation (on VHS! remember those?) about a hundred times when I was a kid. Then, I looked it up and worked out that it only covered two of the “several remote nations” to which Gulliver travelled. Apparently a lot of film adaptations do that, because the first couple of “travels” are the easiest to film and communicate on-screen; plus, they’re the most kid-friendly, and Gulliver’s Travels is widely regarded as a children’s book, even though there’s a lot of political commentary and allegory behind the childish imagery. I suppose that makes it an old-timey version of Shrek, really.

Don’t be fooled, though: Gulliver’s Travels has had a considerable impact on literature, and indeed the English language on the whole. In this book, we can find the origins of science fiction, and the structure of the modern novel. Even the term “yahoo” (meaning “a rude, noisy, or violent person” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is drawn from Swift’s work – another English word that has its roots in classic literature! It’s just a shame I couldn’t enjoy it properly because the main character was such an unremitting arsehole.


My favourite part (not that I felt spoiled for choice) was where Gulliver meets a King, who moonlights as psychic medium John Edward. He can recall people from the dead, but only for 24 hours at a time, and only once every three months. Gulliver talks him into bringing back Aristotle, assorted Roman emperors, dead Kings, and so forth. There’s a really touching passage where he laments the fact that history is written by the victors, and all these dickheads (who he’d been taught all his life were “great men”) were basically the Donald Trumps of their day. All the people who’d stood up to them and fought the good fight had either been forgotten or had their names dragged through the mud. Gulliver declares that he’s fed up with fake news, and he’s calling bullshit on it all – surprisingly poignant, eh?

My tl;dr summary of Gulliver’s Travels: Gulliver leaves his wife and kids at home to gallivant around the world, four times over, even though he constantly meets with disaster and winds up a prisoner in some foreign land or another. He becomes such a twisted misanthrope that he gives up on humanity and lives out his days ankle-deep in horse shit. Sure, the academics will say that it’s an ever-relevant critique of corruption and religion and government… but I can’t get past the wife-abandonment. Gulliver pretty much got what he deserved, is what I’m saying, and his wife could have done so much better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gulliver’s Travels:

  • “This was the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. My whole family hates it too. Honestly, I could barley read it for 10 minutes without it putting me to sleep from Gulliver dragging on about garbage no one cares about. I would rather drink a gallon of mayonnaise then read this, actually I would BATHE in mayonnaise for a MONTh then read this book. And don’t even think about saying “oh I bet its not THAT bad,” because it IS THAT BAD! I wish I didn’t have to read this book for my class, but by the time i’m done, I might as well burn the book.” – AmazonShoper
  • “Useless as a book.” – Flordelis
  • “Sucked.” – Morgan
  • “Mostly good stories.” – John H. Long

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

After I finished Little Women, I couldn’t help but pick up John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was Louisa May Alcott’s father’s favourite book; he would read it aloud to his children, and encourage them to act it out, so it’s no surprise that she referenced it a lot in her work. Plus, its influence is clear in literature more generally: most notably, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is named for one of its settings. It also crops up in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and a bunch of others. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most significant works of English literature, widely billed as being the first English novel. It has been translated into over 200 languages, and it has never been out of print. So, are you convinced? I am!

The book’s full name is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is To Come. Bunyan began work on it while he was in the pokey; he was imprisoned for violating the Conventicle Act, which forbade people from gathering for religious services outside the Church of England in the 17th century. Bunyan, of course, did not give a shit, and he got busted preaching in a field. The first edition was published in 1678, while he was still locked up, and then the expanded edition came out after he was freed, in 1679. All up, there were twelve editions published in his lifetime, each with new revisions. This version, the Penguin English Library Edition, reproduces the original as closely as possible, with just a few slight tweaks to spelling and punctuation for the comfort of the contemporary reader.

It reads like a part-poem, part-play, part-story. The narrator recounts a dream that he had in jail about a pilgrim – Christian – who abandons his wife and children to hike to Heaven. Well, as best I can tell, he read the Bible and he freaked the fuck out (don’t all good pilgrimage stories start that way?). He’s weighed down by a “great burden” (the knowledge of his “sin”), and he convinces himself he’ll sink on down to Hell if he doesn’t get his shit together – so off he goes!

Then there’s a second part about his wife and children following him, which I thought was kind of nice. If only all authors had dedicated sequels to the forgotten wife!


Bunyan’s allegorical tale, the academics say, stands out above his predecessors because his language was simple and straightforward, making it easier for the every-man to understand. To put it more simply, it’s The Divine Comedy for dummies. Dante’s work, and the similarities between them, are so obvious it’s like a brick hitting you over the head. Bunyan’s prose is a lot simpler to be sure, but in my mind Inferno is still the clear winner – if nothing else, it’s a lot more exciting. Plus, The Pilgrim’s Progress just isn’t very funny! The only laughs I got were from things that probably weren’t meant to be funny, like:

“She is a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man.”

Talk! Imagine! What a strumpet!

There are no chapters in this edition (or any other, as far as I can tell), which is annoying – it’s just one big block of text. Normally, I use those pauses in the narrative to scribble down my notes, and think over what I’ve just read. Putting the book down to do all that, without a chapter break, feels like interrupting someone in the middle of a monologue. I suppose it’s forgivable, being that it was the first English language novel in history and no one had told Bunyan about chapters and all, but still… ugh.

At least it doesn’t require much background knowledge of religion. And all of the characters have helpfully-descriptive names like “Faithful” and “Talkative” – makes it pretty easy to keep them all straight. And Bunyan wasn’t entirely without humour in this regard; he was a Protestant, and not all that fussed with the Catholic Church, so he named the decrepit and harmless giant character “Pope”. Ha!


It’s impossible to deny Bunyan’s impact on English literature, and the respect afforded to him as a result of that. No one dares hanging any shit on him for using the “it was all a dream” trope – I mean, he’s probably the reason that trope exists to begin with! That said, I would only recommend The Pilgrim’s Progress to people who read the footnotes. You need to have a deep abiding curiosity about the tradition of literature, and/or God, to get much of it. If that doesn’t sound like you, give Dante’s Inferno a go instead, or skip the centuries-old religious allegories altogether.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

  • “Strange print style… great literature thouh. But the way it’s presented on paper is like a kids big coloring book. It’s like a picture book, but they forgot to add the pictures.” – orson orson
  • “The quality of the book exceeded my expectations.” Patricia M Nulf
  • “This book is about as far away from biblical salvation as you can be. The main character had to work for his salvation which is not what the bible teaches. John 6:47, Romans 4:5, Eph 2:8-9If you wish to confuse someone and see your friend or relative in hell, get them this book.” – Dave Nesbitt
  • “Tedious” – Amazon Customer9
  • “Like the names of the people.” – Amazon Customer
  • “this book has you lookin at your faith” – Debra Carroll
  • “This was a gift for my husband. I have not heard comments from him.” – SLC

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

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

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

Introduction (Crime And Punishment)

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

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


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

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

p. 242

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

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


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

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

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

p. 601

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crime and Punishment:

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