Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Comedy

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Ever wonder why I’m constantly buying secondhand books? Aside from being thrifty, it’s because they have the most amazing and hilarious charm that I just don’t get when I click “buy now” on the latest brand-new mass-market paperback. Inside this well-worn copy of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, for instance, I found a hand-written business card, complete with name, phone number, email address, and the (one would assume unofficial) job title of “complete and utter wanker”. Can’t beat that!

Evelyn Waugh was the second son of Arthur Waugh, celebrated publisher-slash-literary critic, and also the brother of Alec Waugh, the popular novelist. I can only imagine the weight of family expectation on his shoulders, and the snippy conversations they had over Christmas dinners! Luckily, it would seem that he managed to out-write and out-last them both. He’s better known for his book Brideshead Revisited, but somehow Scoop, his satirical novel about sensationalist journalism and foreign correspondents, is the one that ended up on my reading list.

It’s kind of funny, really, to read a book about journalists and newspapers written before the News Of The World scandal. Scoop reads like a time capsule of the by-gone “heyday” of newspaper journalism. The protagonist is the humble (read: poor) William Boot, who lives on the very-very outskirts of London and regularly contributes over-written nature columns to The Daily Beast, a newspaper owned by the terrifying and powerful Lord Copper. Boot’s life is turned upside-down when Lord Copper mistakes him for a fashionable member of the literati (John Courtney Boot, a distant cousin), and bullies him into accepting a post as a foreign correspondent.

Not-very-important note, but something I can’t help mentioning: Waugh seemed to be unusually fond of the word “preternatural”. I had to look it up, to make sure it didn’t have some nuanced meaning or significant etymology, he used it so often! Twice in the first twenty pages alone, for crying out loud! In different contexts! I still can’t work out what he was playing at…


Anyway, Boot is sent to the fictional East African state of Ishmaelia, where Lord Copper believes there to be “a very promising little war” underway. Boot’s directive is to give the conflict “fullest publicity”. (Yes, the whole way through, the parallels to Murdoch’s real-life media empire are eerie.) Boot has no idea what the fuck he is doing, of course, but despite his total incompetence, he manages to get the biggest “scoop” of the year (thus, the title). He heads home a journalistic hero.

When he gets back to London, however, there’s another case of mistaken identity. All the credit for his work goes to John Courtney Boot, the writer for whom Lord Copper had mistaken him initially. Our hero is actually relieved by that turn of events, and he goes back to his humble life of genteel poverty, writing nature columns and caring for his crazy family. Everyone goes home happy, The End.

Now, let’s not overlook this: there are a lot of ugly racist and sexist overtones in this story (as there are in just about every book of that era). Privileged white people travel to East Africa to make a spectacle of a war between people of colour, in order to sell newspapers. That’s pretty gross on its face, but Waugh seemed to have a certain level of self-awareness about the implications. In fact, I’d say he used Scoop as an opportunity to punch up. The East Africans weren’t the butt of the joke: the ridiculous arrogant journalists and newspaper moguls were. And Waugh wasn’t subtle: the two major newspaper competitors were called the “Brute” and the “Beast”, so there’s no mistaking his true feelings. (Oh, and his idea of the lowliest employee at a newspaper was the book reviewer – ha!)

Waugh’s blatant disregard for the opinions of the powerful elites he lampooned is all the more surprising given that Scoop is actually based on his real-life experience working for the Daily Mail. He was sent to cover Mussolini’s role in the Second Italo-Abyssian war. Lord Copper is widely believed to be an amalgamation of characteristics of the real-life Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, a combination that produced a character so frightening his underlings could only say “Definitely, Lord Copper” and “Up to a point, Lord Copper” (which is how the whole mistaken identity issue arises to begin with). Waugh’s Scoop is the very clear and unambiguous predecessor to The Devil Wears Prada.

The main point Waugh was trying to make, it would seem, is that even if there isn’t anything newsworthy going on, the appearance of world media – desperate to please their editors and media owners back home – will, in itself, create the news. This sounds like an obvious statement of fact today, but I’d imagine at the time it was revelatory. Waugh appears to have foreseen the proliferation of fake news and alternative facts. It’s a testament to his searing insight that Scoop maintains its relevance to the present day. Even as journalism dies a quiet death and the newspaper work room becomes a quaint relic and the news increasingly relocates to online formats with instantaneous delivery systems, Waugh’s wit and insight remains almost as sharp as it did at the time of publication.

As for the writing itself, as much as I admire Waugh’s incredible foresight in his premise and plot, it wasn’t mind-blowing. It really evoked The Thirty-Nine Steps for me, actually – a grumpy Pommy bloke, through a series of coincidences, gets thrust into a situation that’s beyond him and he has to rise to the challenge. It forms a kind of bridge between The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Sun Also Rises. I liked it well enough; it wasn’t fantastic prose, but it wasn’t a chore to finish, and I’m glad to have read it. If you’ve got an interest in media, how it works and how it affects our understanding of the world, this would be great background reading for you – give it a go and let me know what you think.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Scoop:

  • “Somewhere between William Boyd’s “A Good Man in Africa” and Graham Greene’s “Our Man In Havana” you will find Waugh’s “Scoop”, which should have been titled “Our Gardening Columnist in Ishmaelia”….” – Pop Bop
  • “I think some people would find this very funny. I didn’t.” – ellen sf
  • “Book was brand new and I loved the size of the font! Extra easy to leave nits in the margin (because I am studying the novel for a class)” – Ebony Cannon
  • “She’s a he. Pronounced EEEEE-velyn.” – Amazon Customer
  • “‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.’ That must babe good style.” – A customer

The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

I had a devil of a time finding a copy of The Colour Of Magic in my usual secondhand bookstore haunts. Most Terry Pratchett books are like hen’s teeth, even though he was pretty prolific (he wrote and contributed to over 70 books over the course of his life). It would seem that he’s, well, rather popular. I ended up finding this copy at a probably-illegal lonely market stall, run from the side of the road in Newtown. A hippie bloke was selling off what appeared to be his entire personal library, bless his cotton socks. I didn’t realise until I got home and opened the book that this edition also includes the sequel, The Light Fantastic – it doesn’t mention it on the cover at all. Weird, eh?

The Colour Of Magic is a comic fantasy novel, the first in Pratchett’s Discworld series, published in 1983. The first print run of the British edition produced just 506 copies; I can only imagine the panic at the printers when they realised just how many more they’d need, because it achieved instant popularity. All I knew about the book going in, though, was that a friend of mine from university loved Pratchett, and his shelves were stuffed with books from this series. We’ve since lost touch, but if he’s out there and he stumbles upon this little blog, I hope he’s happy I finally got around to picking up his favourite 😉

The blurb opens with the tagline: “The funniest and most unorthodox fantasy in this or any other galaxy”, which sounded like a very deliberate and unsubtle dig at Douglas Adams. Indeed, The Colour Of Magic read very much like fantasy’s answer to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and they’d probably make good companion reads if you’re into that kind of thing. This book, and the whole series after it, is set in a world that takes the form of a flat disc balanced on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on the back of a giant turtle (the Great A’Tuin), floating through space. The inhabitants of the Discworld include wizards, dwarves, soldiers, beggars, vampires, witches, and all other manner of ghosties and ghoulies. The blurb hastened to reassure me, the reader, that the series can be read in any order, but it’s really best to start at the beginning, and enjoy them in the chronology that Pratchett originally intended. And so, I did…!


The Colour Of Magic follows the adventures of a failed wizard, and a wealthy (but rather naive) tourist, as they travel together through the Discworld. The story is split into “sections”, rather than chapters, so it reads almost like a group of short stories or novellas, as opposed to continuous novel-length prose. In the first, Rincewind (the wizard) is paid handsomely to guide Twoflower (the tourist) around the biggest city in the realm, his home of Ankh-Morpork. My first literal lol came when Rincewind described Twoflower thus:

“Let’s just say that if complete and utter chaos was lightning, he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour shouting ‘All Gods are bastards’.”

The Colour of Magic

Initially, Rincewind accepts payment for his services in advance and tries to do a runner, but the leader of Ankh-Morpork stops him. The leadership team fears that if Twoflower gets lost or dies on his watch, the resulting PR disaster would cause his rich and vengeful hometown to invade. Of course, Twoflower is promptly kidnapped by a gang of thieves, and, with his leader’s warnings ringing in his ears, Rincewind has to stage a rescue, so their adventures begin…

Oh, and Twoflower has with him The Luggage, an apparently-indestructible enchanted sentient(!) chest. It’s the R2-D2 to their Luke and C3PO, really.


An important note: my reluctance to read fantasy novels mostly stems from my fear of not being able to keep all the names of people and places straight (as I said in my review of A Game Of Thrones). There were a few murky moments in The Colour Of Magic, but on the whole I realise now, writing it, that my summary will sound a lot more confusing than the book itself. So, if you’re of the same mind, take heart – any confusion you’re currently feeling can be attributed right back to me, because Pratchett did a very good job of making everything clear. The only thing I would highlight as a potential issue is that the whole book reads like it’s on fast forward, and you need to be prepared to jump from place to place and crisis to crisis very quickly. In fact, The Colour Of Magic is pretty much one long series of quick accidents that rocket Twoflower and Rincewind around the Discworld, so that Pratchett can show off his universe as quickly as possible. As long as you’re prepared to keep pace, you’ll be just fine.

Anyway, back to the story: along the way, they’re joined by a large, violent, and mostly-monosyllabic barbarian named Hrun, who carries a magical sword. He doesn’t hang around long, though. They visit the upside-down mountain of Wyrmberg, home of the dragon riders, and Hrun catches the eye of the potential-heiress Liessa. He’s roped into marrying her so that she may ascend to the throne, and Rincewind and Twoflower carry on without him. They don’t even stick around for the bachelor party!

Before long, disaster strikes again: they’re taken to the edge of the Discworld by ocean currents (every Flat Earther’s worst nightmare!), and nearly topple over the edge. They’re caught by the Circumfence (definitely Pratchett’s cleverest pun in the whole book), a huge net that was installed to catch anything that washed off the Discworld. A sea troll finds them and takes them in, before promptly handing them over to the Krullians. This new group is seeking to discover the sex of the Great A’Tuin (the turtle on whose back the whole Discworld rests, remember?). They’re very concerned about the possibility of the Great A’Tuin running into another giant space turtle, naturally, so they want to assess what the reaction of the turtle might be based on its sex (if it’s a boy turtle and it runs into another boy turtle, for instance, they might fight, spelling certain doom for everyone in the Discworld).


The Krullians are planning to launch a two-person capsule over the edge of the disc, and they decide to offer Rincewind and Twoflower to the God of Fate in sacrifice, to ensure the voyage’s success. In the end, however, Twoflower ends up joining the mission in the capsule, and Rincewind escapes… only to fall right over the edge, anyway.

The story quite neatly segues into the beginning of The Light Fantastic, so they can be read as a single novel, but I didn’t continue on with it – I’ve had enough fun for the moment! Nonetheless, I can definitely appreciate how well The Colour Of Magic sets up the Discworld series; Pratchett left a lot of interesting threads dangling, and I can understand the reader’s desperation to tug at them a little and see what happens. The series reached thirty-two installments, and sold over 20 million copies around the world, leading it to become one of the most popular and celebrated series in English literature. But what’s weird is that most die-hard Pratchett fans insist that The Colour Of Magic isn’t his finest work, and claim that it really undersells his talent. Perhaps I did myself a disservice by not reading on, but hey – there’s only so many hours in a day, and this gal has a whole list of great books to get through!

Pratchett said that The Colour Of Magic was “written in protest”, and he intended to satirise earlier fantasy novels. He loved fantasy, but found pre-1990s work contained “too many dark lords, too much lack of thought”. I’d say he was pretty successful in that endeavour; he made a lot of sharp jabs at cliches and tropes of the genre, like the stereotypical revealing outfits worn by female characters, the ridiculousness of attempting to ride a dragon, and – in a style quite reminiscent of Don Quixote – the unbelievable baseless “quests” of protagonists and their sidekicks. This has led some critics to argue that you really need to be a fan of fantasy to understand and fully appreciate The Colour Of Magic (while, in his later books, Pratchett satirised the real world, which was more accessible for readers outside the usual genre market). I would argue the opposite is true. I think The Colour Of Magic is perfect for people who are normally skeptical of fantasy, because it pokes fun of all the cliches that scare or annoy us. It’s like Pratchett is saying to us: “See? It’s not all bad!”.


Naturally, given its popularity, there’s a screen adaptation: a two-parter made for television that combines The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic. A few of the stars will be very familiar to fantasy fans, with Sean Austin (Samwise Gamgee from Lord Of The Rings) playing Twoflower, and Christopher Lee playing Death. Off-screen, the Discworld books have also been adapted into graphic novels and computer games, the perfect formats to capture a new generation of interested readers.

On the whole, I had much the same reaction to The Colour Of Magic as I did The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which is really not surprising given their similarities in form and tone. It was a fun little romp, a great read to take one’s mind off their troubles and the real world collapsing around our ears, a great moment of escapism with clever parody and satire thrown in to keep it sharp. I’d recommend you give this one a go if you’re not normally into fantasy and you want to give it a try without committing to a doorstop novel that will languish on your bedside table for months.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Colour Of Magic:

  • “When you need to laugh and enjoy the absurd. What better place than the back of a huge turtle? The elephants are also useful.” – Morris C. Johnson
  • “So much fun – it’s what you would get if Douglas Adams wrote Lord Of The Rings.” – Jeremy Parker
  • “I beseech thee. Please release the great Terry Pratchet so that he may delivery us from the stinking, fetid, over commercialized and over politicized, literature which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre has become. Please let Rincewind show the way to incompetent hero want-to-be thieves how to survive and escape. Please let the great Captain Sam show those who have aspirations of leading villages to become empires, how to lead people. Please let PreditaX show young teenage upstart witches with intelligence and wisdom years beyond them, the true colour of magic. Thank you for hearing my prayers.” – Reghu
  • “This book had words in it. Some, when in a particular order were very humorous.” – Chester J
  • “I ALWAYS WONDERED WHAT COLOR IT WAS!!!!!” – Lord Eagle Death Club
  • “Given that this book has spawned over three dozen sequels, I should have suspected it would be less Tolkien and more Piers Anthony. The stock review is that it’s what might happen if Douglas Adams had written fantasy. Except it’s not very funny, and not very good. Might I have enjoyed this had I read it as a teenager? Maybe. But I’m not. It starts out only slightly dumb, but gets worse with every page. And the ending is just terrible. Boring, unfunny, and utterly pointless. Seriously, seriously awful.” – Don.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Teresa Cascajo (page 520)

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

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

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


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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Don Quixote:

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

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

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

    You get the idea.

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



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Warning: this particular book review might get a little ranty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel written by Anita Loos, first published in 1925 – one of several novels published that year that are famous for their depictions of the Jazz Age in America. It’s a travesty that this wonderful, hilarious, insightful book lives under the inconceivably large shadow cast by The Great Gatsby. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge success immediately upon publication; the entire first print run sold out the first day it went into stores, it was a best-seller in thirteen different languages, and it counts among its fans James Joyce and Edith Wharton (who called it the Great American Novel). So, why is it always overlooked in discussions of the modern classics? Yet another example of how we value stories about and by men over those of women, hmph! (Yes, I’m getting ranty, I did warn you!)

The book’s full title is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, and this edition also contains its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which was published two years later. The introduction to this volume is quite good, and highly readable. It contains gems like:

“It could be said, therefore, that Loos did not write a version of Beauty and the Beast; instead, she rewrote Beauty as the Beast.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

And:

“The men who perpetually orbit around Lorelei and Dorothy have two major problems: they have too much money in their bank accounts and too much time on their hands. Lorelei and Dorothy are able to solve both their problems at once.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

Loos said she was inspired to write the book after watching her friend, intellectual H.L. Mencken, reduced to a character she likened to a lovestruck schoolboy in the presence of a sexy blonde woman. Mencken was a good sport about it; he read her draft, loved it, and saw to its publication. Of the particular brand of humour she displays in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos said:

“In those days I had a friend, Rayne Adams, who used to say that my slant on life was that of a child of ten, chortling with excitement over a disaster…. But I, with my infantile cruelty, have never been able to view even the most impressive human behavior as anything but foolish.”

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

“… during a television interview in London, the question was put to me: ‘Miss Loos, your book was based on an economic situation, the unparalleled prosperity of the Twenties. If you were to write such a book today, what would be your theme?’ And without hesitation, I was forced to answer, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Gentlemen’ (a statement which brought the session abruptly to a close).”

Anita Loos

Alright, alright, I’ll stop quoting Loos (even though I could do it all day, she was endlessly quotable!) and get down to business. Going in, I thought that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be The Great Gatsby meets Bridget Jones’s Diary, but in reality it was more like Gatsby meets The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. It’s fun, and silly, but also insightful and powerful. Actually, charming is probably the best word for it. I couldn’t help but continue through reading But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes as well, so taken was I with Loos’ characters and prose.

The premise of the story is this: beautiful blonde Lorelei Lee decides to try her hand at writing a diary, because a gentleman friend suggested that her thoughts would make for an interesting book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is presented as a transcript of that journal, complete with spelling and grammatical errors that say much about Lorelei’s personality and position. She had been working in the movies in Hollywood, she tells us, when she met Mr Gus Eisman, a button manufacturer from Chicago. He decided that her line of work in Hollywood was not becoming for a woman of her potential, so he installed her in a New York apartment and committed a small fortune to “educating” her. What follows from these opening pages, the entire book, is a knowing wink at every woman who has ever copped a barrage of mansplaining from their boss or their boyfriend or the bloke buying their drinks in a bar.



In the course of her “education”, Lorelei meets Gerry Lamson, a married novelist. He is so taken with her that he decides to divorce his wife, on the proviso (of course) that she’ll leave Eisman and run away with him. Lorelei is flattered, naturally, but wishes to avoid the scandal of involvement in a divorce proceeding, and also worries that Eisman might cancel her European cruise ticket if she takes up with another man. Plus, Gerry’s kind of a bore.

Lorelei is also very concerned about her friend, Dorothy, who she believes to be “wasting her time” with a magazine writer named Mencken (a shout-out to Loos’ real-life friend and inspiration for the story), when she could be lavishing her attentions more strategically in the direction of the wealthy movie producer Mr Goldmark. So, to draw her friend away from such fruitless pursuits, Lorelei brings Dorothy with her on the cruise and they set sail for Europe together (with Eisman promising to meet them there).

To Lorelei’s dismay, she discovers that former District Attorney Bartlett is also on board, and she reveals to the reader how she came to know him (and why she’s so distraught at his presence). See, Lorelei once worked as a stenographer in her hometown for one Mr Jennings. Upon finding out that he was a sexual predator, she became “hysterical” and shot him. It sounds brutal, but her re-telling of these events is actually one of the funniest parts of this entire hilarious book. Bartlett is the attorney who prosecuted the case, with little success; apparently, the gentlemen of the jury were so “moved” by Lorelei’s “testimony” (wink-wink) that they acquitted her without question, and the judge – equally taken with her – gifted her the money she needed for a ticket to Hollywood.



Anyway, after some shenanigans on board (involving Bartlett and some military espionage), Lorelei and Dorothy eventually arrive in London. They encounter several impoverished aristocrats who are selling off their jewels to wealthy Americans. One particular £7,500 tiara catches Lorelei’s eye; what’s a poor girl to do but seek out a wealthy man to buy it for her? She settles on Sir Francis Beekman (whom she calls Piggie). He’s rich, but also married (duh) and notoriously stingy. Still, using a heady combination of flattery and promises of discretion, Lorelei convinces him to buy the coveted tiara for her.

With that taken care of, Dorothy and Lorelei head to Paris, but unbeknownst to them Lady Beekman is hot on their tails, hell-bent on confronting Lorelei about this tiara business. In thirty-five years of marriage, she says, her husband has never once bought her a gift, and she accuses Lorelei of having seduced him. Lady B tries to get her lawyers to steal the tiara back, but Lorelei manages to trick them with a fake one, and everyone goes home happy

When Eisman arrives in Paris, he quickly hustles the girls onto the Orient Express and takes them to Vienna. En route, Lorelei meets staunch Presbyterian moralist and prohibitionist Mr Henry Spoffard. He is (you guessed it) filthy rich, old money from Philadelphia. Eisman is quickly discarded. On one of their early dates, Spoffard takes Lorelei to see Dr Sigmund Freud, who says he cannot possibly analyse her because she has never repressed a desire in her entire life (accurate). Spoffard also later introduces Lorelei to his mother; she’s a tough old battle-axe, but Lorelei wins her over with champagne and charm. When Spoffard proposes, Lorelei accepts, albeit begrudgingly; she finds him rather repulsive, but he has money and prospects enough to make her happy.



When they get back to New York, Lorelei decides that she should “come out” into polite society, now that she’s marrying into the fold, so she plans a debutante ball for herself (honestly, I love this woman!). The party lasts three days, and makes the front pages of the newspapers. Lorelei has so much fun that she decides she might not marry Spoffard after all. She gets Dorothy to tell him that she is pathologically indulgent and extravagant (not that much of a stretch), while she goes on a mammoth shopping spree, charging everything to Spoffard’s accounts. When she stops for lunch, she meets a fascinating screen-writer, who convinces her that she should go ahead with the marriage so that her new husband will finance his film projects and she can star in them. It takes a bit of wrangling to unring the bell, but Lorelei – resourceful, clever Lorelei – manages to convince her fiance that it was all a misguided test of his love, and he remorsefully agrees not just to marry her, but finance the first film of her new friend. And so ends Lorelei’s diary, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

(And in the sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Lorelei gives up her film career after she has a child. She decides to become an “authoress”, after all the fun she had writing her diary, and her first project is to tell Dorothy’s life story.)

So, we arrive back at my “controversial” opinion, which I will repeat once more for the cheap seats in the back: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book than The Great Gatsby. They take place in a comparable setting, but Loos’ effort is just so. much. better! I think it’s too easily written off as a funny little story about a silly gold-digger, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a compelling and hilarious account of gender roles, politics, and power in 1920s America. It’s a story about resourcefulness, determination, strategy, and relationships. Compare that to stinkin’ Gatsby, which is pretty much just a cautionary tale about how rich people aren’t as happy as they look – pffft! What a tragedy that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes isn’t the book that teenagers are forced to read in high school; I’m sure it’d teach them a lot more about life, and heck, it’d be a lot more fun for them to read!

Yes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. I particularly encourage you to give it a go if you think that I must be wrong and Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. And, I’m sure I don’t need to say this to the booklovers, but just in case you need a reminder: don’t judge the book by its movie.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

  • “The air head who overrates her intellectual prowess is cute, but this book is a one trick pony. Lorelei simply sees life as “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” she wants to shop for hats, men are her sugar daddies. I’m sure this book was uproariously funny in the 1920’s.

I guess you had to be there.” – J. Rodeck
  • “It wasnt the play its the novel and im an so not satisfied” – Raven Lyons

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

p. 26

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

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

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

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

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


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I managed to score this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at a market stall, for the princely sum of just $5. I’d been searching for it for so long, I’d happily have paid four times that. According to the author bio, Muriel Spark was pretty damn prolific, and yet this is the only book of hers that I’ve ever come across – and it was bloody hard to find! It’s definitely the best-known of her works, first published in The New Yorker, and then as a book by Macmillan, in 1961. The introduction promises: “… a sublimely funny book. It is also very short and has much to say about sex.” Honey, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling.

It opens in 1930s Edinburgh. The titular Miss Jean Brodie – who is, indeed, in her prime, and doesn’t waste a chance to remind you of that fact – is a teacher at a school for girls. She has selected for herself six ten-year-old students, her special favourites, the “Brodie set”. It was a funny change of pace going from The Thirty-Nine Steps, which had an almost entirely male cast, to The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which (by nature of its setting and its story) is almost entirely female.

Under Miss Brodie’s mentorship, these six girls (Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice) learn all about world travels, love, and fascism. Yep, apparently that’s the new reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and it’s one heck of a combo! Miss Brodie finds herself entangled in a dramatic love triangle with her colleagues: the singing teacher, Mr Gordon Lowther, and the handsome one-armed (married!) war veteran, Mr Teddy Lloyd. It’s Lloyd that really gets Miss Brodie’s motor running, but ultimately she turns him down. He is married, after all, and she has some self-respect. She embarks on an affair with Lowther instead, probably closing her eyes and thinking of her one-armed Teddy all the while…

Anyway, the girls grow up (as kids are wont to do), but they maintain the close bonds they formed under Miss Brodie’s tutelage, and she keeps having them all around for tea and whatnot. The headmistress at the school, Miss Mackay, is not a fan of Miss Brodie’s teaching methods and the course this is all taking (hard to imagine why), so she starts throwing a few tea parties of her own, trying to gather dirt from the girls that would give her grounds for dismissal. Sudden unemployment sure does put a quick end to a woman’s “prime”, eh?





Now, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie does have a jumpy timeline, which normally I’m not inclined to enjoy, but I actually didn’t mind it so much in this case. One of the “flash forwards” in the story reveals that one of the Brodie set will ultimately (gasp!) betray their patroness, dobbing her in to the headmistress… but doesn’t show the reader which one. It was really cleverly done by Spark, and added an extra air of mystery and suspicion to the whole thing.

Anyway, back in the regular timeline, poor Teddy is still lusting after Miss Brodie, and (prepare yourself for an avalanche of creepy) he starts having the girls from the Brodie set come around and pose for his portraits. He ends up drawing all of their faces as his paramour *vomit*. Let me say that one more time for the cheap seats in the back: this teacher pains Miss Jean Brodie’s primey head onto the bodies of her pubescent students. Isn’t that the grossest thing you’ve ever fucking heard?! And yet, they all seem like they’re cool with it! Miss Brodie’s pretty damn flattered, even. She pulls a few strings, trying to egg Rose on to having an affair with the creepy old guy, figuring the young girl would be an adequate distraction from all of her prime-ness… but Teddy ends up sticking it to plain ol’ Sandy, instead, much to everyone’s surprise. Oh, and while all this is going on, Lowther dumps Miss Brodie. Pretty understandable really, given everything.

And this is where Miss Brodie really fucks up: she accepts a new member to the Brodie set, Joyce Emily. This newbie seems open to the whole fascism thing, so Brodie fans the flames, encouraging her to run away and fight in the Spanish Civil War on the nationalist side. Of course, Joyce Emily follows the suggestion… and is promptly killed en route. Yikes!





Sandy has become Miss Brodie’s confidante, so she gets all the inside scoop on this turn of events, all the while still fucking the teacher that paints his lover’s heads on students bodies (I’m sorry, I can’t get over that, it’s just so icky, and NONE OF THEM SEEM TO CARE! WHY?!). Sandy’s interest in Teddy wanes over time, but her Swimfan-y obsession with Miss Brodie reaches boiling point. She winds up approaching the headmistress, giving her all the dirt she has on Miss Brodie, which (it turns out) is enough to get her fired. Then the little betrayer converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun, Miss Brodie dies never knowing that Sandy ratted her out, the end.

Now, maybe I’ve been at this reading-and-reviewing-the-classics game a little too long, but I couldn’t help reading this as a religious allegory. I mean, I don’t know dick about religion, so I could be way off-base, but hear me out: Miss Jean Brodie is Jesus (right?), and she gathers all these disciples (students) around her, and goes about preaching an alternate worldview, until Judas (Sandy) betrays her. That’s about right, isn’t it?

Even if it isn’t, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is ultimately a story about loyalty. You can tell, because Sandy keeps on repeating “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due”, which is an interesting moral philosophy in and of itself. It’s also a funny book, in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma was funny: I didn’t laugh out loud, but I appreciated how it was witty and clever. And damn, Spark manages to cram a whole lotta story into very few words: this review is about as long as the book!





If you haven’t already had your fill of creepy for the day, here’s the final serve: Miss Jean Brodie is based on a real person! Christina Kay was Spark’s teacher for two years at James Gillespie’s School For Girls, and Spark credited her with encouraging her burgeoning talent for writing. Spark, like Sandy, also later converted to Catholicism. No word on whether the perverted painting and underhanded betrayal parts are true-to-life, but they do say “write what you know”…

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie will give you a lot to chew on; don’t be fooled by how short it is! It’s definitely worth a read. It’s unlikely to become your special all-time favourite, but it will stick with you for a while. I’m selfishly hoping you’ll all read it and be creeped out as I am, if for no other reason than to validate my feelings! It can’t just be me… right?

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie:

  • “Good story no real purpose though. Well written.” – Courtney McFeters
  • “Muriel Spark, to me, is one of the greatest writers of her time. Each book is a gem, but of course, this one really sparkles.” – Sally
  • “I consider myself a fairly inteligent high school student who is eager to be challenged mentally. The problems with this book are several fold. It jumps around like a five-year on a jolt cola bender. The characters are unimpressive and serve somehow or another to emulate each other and form some sort of omni-character – which i dont care to figure out. The plot is about as unsubstantial and insignificant as an ant taking a dump. [note: the reason i am so profane is due to my hating the book and having to analyze the non-existent humor in it for my AP literature class, apologies around] THIS BOOK IS THE ATTEMPT BY MURIEL SPARK TO ACADEMICLLY POSTURE HERSELF INTO A POSITION OF PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL AUTHORITY AND DISPLAY HER COMPLEX AND INSIGNIFICANT FICTION FORMAT. MAKE NO MISTAKE, THIS BOOK IS ONE PRETENSTIOUS(sic) PAGE AFTER ANOTHER.
a mad millburn lit student (2002-2003)” – nozama woleb
  • “I just wanted to say that this book made me wish that theyd legalise hand guns in the UK. It is the kind of book that makes little children cry. I have read more interesting stuff on the bake of crisp packets. In conclusion 9/10 phycopathic maniacs recomend reading The Pride of MJB before going on a random killing spree.” – Mr Cook’s Favourite Pupil


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


The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Well, I don’t know about you, but after last week’s adventure on The Narrow Road To The Deep North, I needed something a little more light-hearted. When I tell people I’m reading my way through a list of classic and popular books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is their number one suggestion/request. I couldn’t get to it for ages: it was super difficult to find a copy in my usual secondhand bookstores. One staffer literally laughed when I asked if they had it; every copy they get (and they don’t get many, because no one wants to part with it) is snapped up immediately. So, you’d better believe that I pounced as soon as I saw one! Even though I’m not a sci-fi reader, this one is such a cultural icon – and so many people recommend it so highly – I was really excited.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy actually began as a radio series, first broadcast on 8 March 1978. Adams didn’t adapt it to book form until the following year, but it’s a good thing he did because it sold 250,000 copies in just the first three months after its release. What makes my secondhand store find even more of a miracle is that this is one of those editions! The very first published by Pan Books back in 1979. Can you believe it?? You’ll pry this baby out of my cold dead hands! And I tell you this not just to show off: it’s actually quite important to know which edition someone is reviewing, because Adams made substantial re-writes between each print run. Even though the basic plot points remain the same, the editions often contradict each other with changes to character, dialogue, and so forth. So, anything that follows might be a little different to what you recall if you read a later edition, don’t @ me 😉

Right from the get-go, Adams is funny. His author bio says things like: “He has also worked at various times as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, bodyguard, radio producer, and script editor of Doctor Who. He is not married, has no children, and does not live in Surrey.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that he’s a pretty kooky guy, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a pretty kooky book. Adams claimed that the concept and title were inspired by a bender. He was hitchhiking around Europe and one night, lying drunk in a field (if I had a dollar), he got to thinking about his mate’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe and mused that there should be a version written for the galaxy. And he was onto something, believe it or not: his drunken idea turned into an international multi-media phenomenon.


The story begins with THE END OF THE WORLD… literally. A Vogon constructor fleet vaporises our dear planet to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Luckily, an unassuming English gent – our protagonist, Arthur Dent – is rescued by Ford Prefect, the humanoid alien freelancer who’s writing a guide to Earth for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Ford drags Arthur up and away, and they hitch a ride on a passing Vogon space craft. And so, their misadventures begin…

As I’m sure you can tell already, I did a good job of picking a light read to counteract my last one. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is silly, it’s fun, and it’s quite satirical in tone (it reminded me of Catch-22 in that way, actually). Arthur Dent explores the galaxy with his alien buddy, and they make a few friends along the way: Trillian (another human that had escaped Earth prior to its destruction), Zaphod Beeblebrox (the two-headed President of the Galaxy), and Marvin (the Paranoid Android). My favourite part was the off-hand mention of a planet where all the lost biro pens go: I think I could live there quite happily…


The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy ended up being the first in a series of five books that Adams ironically called a “trilogy”. After it, there’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, The Universe and Everything (1982), So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). There was also a sixth book in the series, called And Another Thing…, published in 2009 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the novel’s release (but being that Adams is, well, dead, it was written by Irish author Eoin Colfer).

The series has inspired countless multi-media adaptations, beyond even the original radio broadcasts: films, television shows, music, graphic novels… Adams’ story is so pervasive in pop culture that when Elon Musk launched his Tesla Roadster in Feburary 2018, he emblazoned the dashboard with DON’T PANIC, and packed a towel and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy on board (all of which are in-jokes from the book).

So, yes, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is perfect if you’re in need of a chuckle, as I was. I’m not sure I’d read it again, I didn’t love it that much, but I’m glad I gave it a go. It made me think a lot about how sci-fi is often maligned, and how varied the genre can actually be, unbeknownst to the readers that look down their noses at it. Most of all, though, I’m glad I finally understand the meaning of a cryptic note a former colleague left for me when he moved on to a new job; it said “So long, and thanks for all the fish!”. I puzzled over that for years, but now – thanks to my Keeping Up With The Penguins project – it finally makes sense! If you don’t get it, you’ll just have to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or die wondering 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

  • “felt a lost of i. q.” – albe
  • “A fun random adventure in an absurd future past about space Wikipedia. It was the most random book I’ve ever read but it was short and entertaining.” – Seth
  • “The words soar and scintillate, in exactly the way a brick doesn’t. Douglas, you left us too soon. Farewell.” – Mark A. Wilson
  • “Adventurous spirit of Star Trek meets scientific imagination of Harry Potter meets hilarity of Sharknado. At the end of the day, Douglas Adams is a genius and it’s not hard to see how this novel inspired a young Elon Musk!” – Pearl Ibarra
  • “Ordered by accident. Enjoyed Marvin the robots escapades though. When he disappeared I lost interest.” – Rich Bowen
  • “I know it is a “classic” and I migh have enjoyed it if I had been smoking weed but I don’t and I didn’t” – Headed South
  • “Among the worst of books. Imagine if Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Pratchett had a love child, and then that love child had no talent.” – Dr Funk
  • “I made it a quarter of the way through the book when I had to put it down. The paragraph in particular referenced a million gallon vat of custard and i couldn’t get past it. Even in science fiction, a million gallon vat of custard just isn’t believable. Belief cannot be suspended with this book.” – Lindsey Mertz

The Martian – Andy Weir


According to the blurb on the front cover of The Martian, the Financial Times called it “Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe”. Indeed, like Gravity, the most compelling thing about The Martian is its premise: an astronaut becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to find a way to make 30 days’ worth of supplies last for years, 220 million miles away from Earth with no way to communicate. Our brains just aren’t wired to compute that kind of aloneness, so if you decide to read The Martian, be prepared for a bit of a mind-fuck.

Andy Weir began writing The Martian in 2009. He spent years researching (astronomy, space flight, orbital mechanics, botany) to make sure the book was as technically accurate as possible, based on today’s technology. Having been turned down by multiple literary agents in the past, Weir decided to go ahead and self-publish The Martian serially – one chapter at a time – on his own website. Within a few months, he had hundreds of fans requesting an eBook with the whole story, so he cobbled one together and put the first edition online for sale at Amazon’s lowest possible price point – 99 cents.

The Martian eBook quickly sold over 35,000 copies (more than had ever been downloaded for free), which was enough to send it straight to the top of Amazon’s science fiction best-seller list. Of course, this caught the attention of the major publishers. Weir eventually sold off the rights piece by piece (first audiobook, then U.S. rights, then international rights). All told, he made upwards of six figures, and The Martian had a second debut – in the twelfth spot on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover fiction. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2015, a film adaptation starring Matt Damon was released, and it took over $630 million at the box office. Weir is one of those “overnight success” stories that was years in the making…

So, back to the story: American astronaut, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars. His crew had to take the drastic step of an emergency evacuation, six days into their month-long mission, due to a dust storm. Watney got blown off course en route to the shuttle, and – believing him to be dead – they left him behind. Whoops!

Once everyone at NASA back on Earth figures out he’s alive, shit really hits the fan. But never fear: Watney is a (remarkably unflappable) botanist and engineer. He figures out a way to grow crops, and he retrieves a communications device from a previous unmanned mission.

The opening chapters are a bit of an info-dump, but that’s hardly surprising given the subject matter. I’m not 100% sure I understood all of the technical specs that Weir threw at me, but I liked Watney’s “voice” as narrator. Even though it was written in the style of a mission log, it was really conversational. Then the point of view changed – to give the story of what was going on back on Earth – and it sounded not entirely unlike a Dan Brown novel.

There’s certainly a lot of interesting Mars facts in The Martian (well… duh). I learned that you can’t make or use a compass on Mars, for instance, because the red planet has no magnetic field. Still, far and away the most important thing I learned is that I am neither smart enough nor tough enough to survive on Mars. Seriously! If Elon Musk gets his way and we start colonising Mars in the next year or whatever, just go on without me. I’ll only slow you all down.

The rest of the story unfolds in a series of (fairly predictable) mishaps and misadventures. After several chapters of Watney explaining (in great detail) how important “the Hab” (an artificial habitat tent thing) is for his survival, of course it blows up. His potato crops die, and it looks for a minute like there’s a real risk that he’ll starve to death before anyone can pick him up. Other disasters include Watney accidentally destroying his communications equipment (he resorts to sending one-way messages to Earth by arranging Mars rocks into Morse Code), and NASA launching a re-supply rocket that explodes in the air. Despite the dire circumstances, there’s only one moment where Watney really panics, as far as I can recall – he has nerves of steel and unfailing optimism, which is jarringly unrealistic but also kind of vital to the plot (I mean, there’s not much of a story in an astronaut rocking in the foetal position on Mars until he dies, right?).


In the end, the crew that left Watney behind are able to return and retrieve him (with just a few other disasters slowing them down). In his final log entry, Watney starts waxing lyrical about the human instinct to help others, and his utter joy at being rescued. I was kind of disappointed that the story ended where it did; to me, the really interesting part would have been Watney’s return to Earth, re-settling after a year of the most extreme kind of solitude (perhaps there’s a sequel in that?).

I’m sure Weir wouldn’t want me to describe The Martian as a comedy, but I must say I found it really bloody funny. It was a little scary at times, sure, and very interesting, but most of the time I found it just plain funny. Watney was a fantastic narrator, and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. He’s so likeable that Australian scientists have actually – like, in real life – named a new species of bush tomato after him (Solanum Watneyi). I’m not even kidding.

I really enjoyed The Martian, but I stop just short of listing it as a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a fun read, but it’s not life changing, and I’m not all that inclined to run out and purchase copies of everything else Weir ever wrote. Pick up The Martian if you’ve read too many classics lately, and you need a quick read with a few chuckles and a feel-good ending.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Martian:

  • “The highly technical explanations turned my stomach. I like science fiction books, but not this. The Supreme Court would not allow it to be read to death row inmates. The little story there was could not keep me reading.” – Howard J. Fox
  • “Much Mars.
    Such science.
    Wow.” – Jordan Mendez
  • “Mechanical engineering porn. Good stuff.” – Casey
  • “i hate the book because it says the F word in it and I do not like survival books also why I do not like the book is because I do not like space books.” – Lost in the jungle

 

Yes Please – Amy Poehler


I thought I had no chance of coming across a copy of Yes Please by Amy Poehler for under $10 (my self-imposed book budget for the Keeping Up With The Penguins project), after Saturday Night Live’s popularity boom during the last U.S. election. And yet, I managed to snatch it – for the right price – right from the window of my favourite bookstore. Is there any better feeling?

Yes Please is the memoir of the American actress/comedian/television writer Amy Poehler, released in 2014. In terms of accolades, it was nominated for a Grammy – of all things – for Best Spoken Word Album. It seems fitting for a celebrity who has hedged her brand on her reputation for not playing by the rules.

I expected to love it. After all, I loved Bossypants, written by Poehler’s work wife Tina Fey. I love books by strong, funny, honest women. I love memoirs. Right from the outset, it ticked all of the right boxes. I had read that it was received with mixed reviews upon release – critics liked some parts and hated others, apparently. But isn’t that just life? I had high hopes.

Well: sometimes, I chuckled. Sometimes, it seemed a bit self-help-y. Sometimes, Poehler made a really good point. Sometimes, she name-dropped a probably-famous person, but I didn’t know of them so it went right over my head. It was a mixed bag, really.


Yes Please didn’t feel as much like reading as it did An ExperienceTM. It’s more of a scrapbook than a memoir; there’s full-colour photographs and letters from friends and extracts from television scripts. There’s no cohesive narrative, it’s a series of essays and letters and anecdotes plucked from the life of a famous person.

The thing is, I’ve never watched SNL, save for the grabs that make the evening news when Alec Baldwin does a funny Trump impression. I had to stop a few times to jump on YouTube and find a clip she described. My personal favourite was a heavily-pregnant Poehler delivering a rap on behalf of Sarah Palin. Still, those stolen moments weren’t enough to allow me to immerse myself in the book itself. The parts about SNL and about improve troupes and about Parks and Recreation were really written for readers that wanted a backstage pass to the films and television shows that they already love. Some knowledge of Amy Poehler, and her career (especially on SNL), and comedy/theater/television more broadly is definitely required in order to enjoy Yes Please properly. (At least, that’s what I tell myself, rather than face the equally-likely reality that I am just a dimwit who couldn’t follow along.)

I wanted to know what Poehler thought about life, about men, about feminism, about marriage, about human nature… Really, the only piece of Poehler’s work with which I was deeply familiar prior to reading Yes Please was her bit-part in Mean Girls, and that didn’t even rate a mention!

Amy Poehler is a Cool Mom - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The one part of Yes Please I really connected with was her “Plain Girl vs The Demon” essay. Poehler managed to articulate something very important about women getting to decide their currency in the world, emphasising that it’s okay if looks aren’t it. That’s not a message that women hear very often, and it churned around in my head for a while.

I also applauded Poehler’s lack of gratitude-gushing, and her refusal to feed the reader any crap about “luck”. She’s very frank and forthright about how her own hard work got her to where she is today. There was no magical coincidence that tossed her into the lap of an SNL director and shot her off to stardom. She expresses an appropriate amount of gratitude to the people she knew who helped her along the way, of course, but make no bones about it: Poehler’s here to tell you she made it to the top on the sweat of her own brow.

I occasionally laughed out loud, which is normally a great sign for a book, but ten minutes later I couldn’t remember the joke. Either I’m getting old, or Yes Please just didn’t resonate with me. It felt like Poehler and I were buzzing on different frequencies.

I think Amy Poehler is wise and wonderful and honest and smart. I didn’t love her book, but her book is not her. I don’t think she needs me to love Yes Please, and I don’t think that not loving it makes me a troll or a hater. It’s a book for people who love her work, really; I doubt it would lead a true troll or hater to change their minds. As she says in her introduction, “writing is hard” – my hat still goes off to her.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Yes Please:

  • “I discovered I do not care about Ms. Poehler’s life.” – SJ MATTHEWS
  • “Throughout the book, Amy writes that she didn’t know what to write about and writing is hard. She was right.” – R Aesch
  • “It took me a long time to get through this. It wasn’t as funny or as interesting as I thought it would be. It’s also a very heavy book for a paperback. Tough to hold up while reading in bed.” – Jeannebug1
  • “Cool Insite into her life And show business but it’s not a jaw slapper.” – Sweet Doodle
  • “I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. Will tell u when done.” – Laurie Rea

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