Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic (page 2 of 2)

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended read on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather, who idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. This gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from my grandparents’ collection, and I’m sure Granddad would have been damn proud that I finally got around to reading it.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel (and, after the mess that was Vanity Fair, that was almost enough to put me off!). The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism, either: it was written by J.B. Priestly who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest. And he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though, because Dickens is a fucking God. I get it now. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. Priestly didn’t like that, but I thought it’s precisely this”chuck-in-a-bit-of-everything” style that makesĀ David Copperfield such an incredible book.




The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch and Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it). Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away and find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s extremely basic, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon after, too. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never once lose track of who they are or what they’re about.


In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. Isn’t that fucking great?!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of The List so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes

 

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Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins took the longest so far, and by a long way: trust me when I say that Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is one hell of a trudge.

Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.

See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening…

But by the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.

When you just need to hit that word count - Very Young Small Early Peas - Vanity Fair - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without ever taking her clothes off. That’s the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!

Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.

The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar-daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can cock up anything else. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily ever after than the rest of them.

So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog.


The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.

Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:

  • “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I got my toe wet with The Hunger Games, and now I’m diving into the pool with a proper classic. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 – an instant best-seller, though in its first fourteen years, Nathaniel Hawthorne made only $1,500 from its release. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America.

Reading the introductions to the classics is very important: the good ones really do provide some excellent context (and make you feel less stupid, because you know what you’re in for ahead of time). In this case, I learned that Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. So, it’s hard to imagine where he drew his inspiration…

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” proclaimed the first page. This sounded promising (I’m a sucker for books with dirty bits). Alas, save for a couple of references to clandestine trysts and being held against a bosom, I was left wanting.

So, we kick off with a 60-page character sketch of all the fellows that ran the Customs House. The narrator bitches them out pretty hard (calling the other blokes “wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life” – burn!), and I heard it caused issues for Hawthorne upon publication – but he said fuck-the-haters and published it anyway, good on him. It takes a while to link this chapter to the story itself: 60 pages (of pissing and moaning) in, the narrator finally finds a piece of red cloth with an A stitched into it, and we’re off to the races!


By “off to the races”, I do – of course – mean “let’s see how many ways Hawthorne can show and tell us that he hates the Puritans”. I was expecting this novel to be some kind of statement on the oppression of female sexuality, or at the very least a “romance” as the cover page styled it. In reality, it’s a 300-page rant about how much the Puritans suck. I’m really not sure what Hawthorne was thinking about his target market. I mean, anyone who reads this and feels vindicated already agrees that the Puritans need to get in the bin. And it’s not like Lyle Shelton’s going to pick this up and think “By golly, good point!”.

(And holy crap, Batman – long sentences abound! I’m a fan of the generous use of the comma and semi-colon, but old mate Hawthorne needs to learn to finish a thought. 14 lines without a full stop? I can barely get through that even after six coffees.)

The protagonist, Hester Prynne, is a bad bitch who had the audacity to get herself knocked up while her husband was lost at sea, and she does not give a fuck that this is all the tea for the girls in town for years. She refuses to give up the name of the baby-daddy, even with a bunch of idle ladies-who-lunch standing around talking about how their husbands should have executed her. She was pretty much the first ride-or-die chick. And she is ready to dismantle the patriarchy and smack the Stockholm syndrome right out of all the women who are slave to it:

“As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself have undergone a still mightier change.”

– Hester Prynne (Bad Bitch)

We find out pretty quickly that the town’s minister is the one who got her into this mess, and I don’t mind saying it’s not exactly a shocking Vader-esque paternity reveal. Even if I hadn’t encountered the spoilers in the introduction: (a) he’s the only male character to be examined thoroughly since we left those old-timers back at the Customs House, and (b) it just fits so neatly into Hawthorne’s vendetta against the Puritanical church. Of course there’s a sordid underbelly! Hell, the foundation of the Church was a woman’s fib about the paternity of a kid born in a barn. In its original context, yes, The Scarlet Letter’s plot “twist” might have been shocking, and the symbolic fuck-you to conservative religion might have seemed a little more subtle, but in this millennium I’m not sure it would even warrant a spoiler warning.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and chest-clutching from Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy, especially once Hester’s long-lost husband returns from sea and starts doctor-ing under an assumed name. Their dramatics seemed kind of quaint, Hubby really doesn’t pose much of a threat: he just sort of hangs around for seven years, and shows no balls at all. No stabbings. No ratting them out. And yet Hester’s wailing about how “herbs would turn to poison in his hands”. Smh…



Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy hatch a cunning secret plan to sail away together, but Long-Lost Hubby thwarts them by getting himself passage on the very same boat. Not to be outdone in dramatics, Minister Baby-Daddy gives the town one final (excellent) sermon, concluding with a confession of his great sin to the entire town, and then he dies (very dramatically) in Hester’s arms. Well, fuck, says Long-Lost Hubby: according to the conclusion, he brooded over being upstaged for about a year or so, before topping himself and leaving a considerable fortune to that little shit Pearl.

(Oh, yeah, the kid! “Pearl”. A nosy pain in the arse from the beginning. She wouldn’t stop asking questions and running amok, the absolute worst. Do not want.)

The themes of The Scarlet Letter are pretty common and timeless; it’s not hard to see why it’s been adapted for the stage and screen a few million times. It’s a good one to talk about at parties, but the way in which it’s written isn’t all that engaging (God, Hawthorne needed an editor to add a few full stops). I probably won’t read it again, but you should give it a go if you’re into an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Scarlet Letter:

  • “Did this for school. It was awful. Luckily, I got it for free since it’s so old. But now that means I can’t burn it. That being said, I did like it as a digital download, and that really helped with reading since looking up words is so easy.” – Kyle
  • “I find Hawthorne descriptive to the point of tedious. I believe writers got paid by the word in his day, and it certainly seemed so in the beginning of the book…” – Cynthia D. Feeney
  • “Shipped on time and reads like a book” – Claude Womack

 

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