Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 3)

The Best Fathers in Literature

Literature is littered with examples of poor parenting, particularly when it comes to fathers. All too often, fathers are dead (as was the case with the Reverend in Jane Eyre), or otherwise absent (like Chaplain March in Little Women). Sometimes they’re completely ineffectual (like Emma’s Mr Woodhouse), and other times they outright suck at the fatherhood gig (see Pap Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), to the point of being dangerous and extremely damaging (who could forget Lolita’s Humbert Humbert?). It all makes for pretty depressing reading, but you know what? Father’s Day is coming up, and it’s time that we spread a little joy to counteract all this misery. Let’s take a look at some of the often-overlooked best fathers in literature.

The Best Fathers In Literature - Black Text Above Image of Man Holding Child on Jetty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

My love for Dickens knows no bounds, but even I can acknowledge that he didn’t write a whole lot of present, supportive father figures. That makes A Christmas Carol’s Bob Cratchit all the more special! Bob is hardly flawless – he’s a little earnest, and a bit of a martyr – but dammit, he saves Christmas! And he provides the perfect counterpoint to Ebenezer Scrooge’s misanthropy. Bob Cratchit will make you believe in fatherly love again, so pick this one up when you’re losing faith.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

Family isn’t always about blood. Hans Hubermann is a forster father to Liesel in The Book Thief, her biological parents having been persecuted for being communists in Nazi Germany. While it would have been easy for a lesser man to simply ignore Liesel (given everything else he had going on), or punish her for stealing books, Hans instead teaches her to read at night by candlelight, and role models the kind of empathy and compassion that saves lives in such dire circumstances. Make no mistake, he can dole out the tough love when it’s needed (Liesel makes the potentially deadly mistake of saying she hates Hitler in public, and Hans smacks her down), but it always comes from a place of genuine fatherly love. If only all fictional displaced children had a man like Hans to care for them… You can read my full review here.

Thomas Schell (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer)

Thomas actually dies before the story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even begins, a victim of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. And yet, the reader is immediately and abundantly aware of his love for his son. The story is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Oskar, as he chases clues to his father’s secret all over New York City. Their father-son bond is well and truly alive, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close serves as a great reminder that good parenting transcends mortality.




 

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

It would seem that there’s a certain controversy involved in calling Mr Bennet one of the best fathers in literature. He is, after all, a bit weak-willed and bewildered (especially when it comes to financial planning). But in fairness, five daughters (especially ones that live for the drama, like the Bennet girls) and a high-strung wife is a lot to cope with, and one can hardly blame the man for backing down from a fight now and then.

What is not up for debate is his love and support for all of the girls, especially the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, his darling Lizzy. He refuses to entertain the notion of a marriage to a man he sees as undeserving of her (even though it would have been a financially savvy match), but he backs Lizzy 100% when she tells him she loves Mr Darcy. “I could not have parted with you, my LIzzy,” he says, “to anyone less worthy”. Recognising the intelligence and agency of his daughters made him a man ahead of his time, and – in my opinion – well-worthy of inclusion in this list of the best fathers in literature.

Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

And, finally, we come to Atticus – arguably the best father in literature, the numero uno, the grand poobah of fatherhood… (as long as you don’t count the ugliness that came to light with the release of Go Set A Watchman). In truth, any list of the best fathers in literature is woefully incomplete without mention of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. He is a widower, raising two children alone against a backdrop of Southern poverty and racism. And yet, he upholds the values of acceptance, gratitude, empathy, and respect like no other literary icon has before or since. His influence is so great that it inspired the foundation of The Atticus Finch Society, a real-life organisation founded to serve the very population that the fictional Atticus sought to defend. Plus, if his bravery and moral fortitude in the face of an unfair world weren’t enough, the man is endlessly quotable:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


And there we have it: a collection of the best fathers in literature you can read to celebrate this Father’s Day. Have you got a favourite that I’ve missed? Make sure you let me know in the comments below (or give them a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

Sibling Rivalry: Who Was The Best Brontë?

Now and then you get a random cluster of super-successful people, all from the same family. There’s multiple household names on these particular family trees, recognisable the world over. In the ’80s, it was all about the Jacksons. The ’90s and ’00s had the Baldwins and the Wayans and the Arquettes. Today, you’ve probably got a favourite Hemsworth or Gyllenhaal or Franco. But back in the 19th century, they had the Brontës.

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Who Were The Brontës?

There’s not a whole lot of sex/drugs/rock’n’roll in the Brontë story, but bear with me. In 1812, a clergyman from a barely-literate Irish family (that’d be Patrick Brontë) met and married the love of his life, Maria. They rapidly produced six offspring: Maria (born 1814), Elizabeth (1815), Charlotte (1816), Branwell (1817), Emily (1818) and Anne (1820). (OK, maybe there was a bit of sex… unprotected sex, apparently.)

To accommodate the expanding brood, Patrick moved his family to the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Even though the town’s population had grown exponentially, there was no sewerage or sanitary systems. The water supply was constantly contaminated by the rotting corpses in the cemetery up the hill (D-minus for the town planner). Food was scarce, and everyone survived (barely) on a steady diet of porridge and potatoes. Life expectancy for residents was around 25 years, and infant mortality was nearly half, so getting all of the Brontës up past knee height was a pretty significant accomplishment.

Unfortunately, even though the kids held up alright, their mother didn’t fare so well, and she died the following year. Her sister moved in with Patrick shortly after to help with running the house, but he needed a bit of peace and quiet (or a better education for the rugrats, or both). He found the kids places at a reputable charitable school not far away. Of course, even “reputable” charitable schools in those days had pupils so malnourished that they lost their eyesight, and rats would gnaw on their extremities at night, so it’s all relative.

Sure enough, the Brontës started dropping like flies. By 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth (the two eldest) were dead from illnesses contracted at school. Patrick got fed up with his kids dying, so he brought the remaining ones back home pronto.




Having suffered stoically through all this death and porridge, now finding themselves quite alone in the middle of nowhere, the remaining Brontë sprogs – Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne – took to making up stories for their own entertainment. They created the fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal, writing stories and poems and feeding off one another’s creativity. In fact, they wrote more as children than any of them managed as adults. Just goes to show what lengths kids would go to keep from getting bored when they don’t have iPads.

In 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne had a collection of poems published under their pen names (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). Branwell was making a pest of himself (more on that in a second), and contributed very little to their literary efforts from that point onward. Their isolation meant that the Brontës created their own kind of literary tradition – relatively untouched by the influence of others that came before, and one that could not be replicated by others that came after. Their creative output was, of course, cut short by their untimely deaths (Emily and Branwell bit the dust in 1848, Anne kicked the year after that, and Charlotte made it all the way to 1854). Still, their reputations continued to grow after their deaths. They are now considered to be one of the most influential literary families of all time, and their home in Haworth is a pilgrimage site (the Brontë Parsonage Museum) for booklovers from around the world. None of the Brontës bore any children, so any genetic genius died out with paper Patrick; sadly, he outlived all of his children, dying in 1861.

Parents are probably supposed to say that they don’t have a favourite kid, and Patrick undoubtedly loved them all, but we are under no such obligation! Debate has raged for over a century now: who was the best Brontë? Let’s take a look at the contenders…

Emily Brontë 

Emily gets pretty much all of the love nowadays. She only wrote one novel – Wuthering Heights – which I once described as a bad-boy’s decade-long over getting friendzoned. It’s a pretty spooky read, full of hauntings and moors and incestuous marriages and stuff. I suppose it’s also a pretty good “eternal love” story, if you’re into that kind of thing. Critics have been analysing Wuthering Heights for decades (I gave it a shot, too), and I’d bet they’re not even halfway done – there’s enough layers of metaphor to keep them at it for a while yet. It’s definitely the most iconic Brontë novel (but could we really say that it’s the “best”? hmmm…)

As for the woman herself, Emily was a bit of a character. She had a bit of trouble holding down a job – mostly because all of the jobs for unmarried women her age at the time involved looking after kids, and she didn’t like that. In fact, she once told the pupils at the school where she taught that she preferred the school dog over all of them (same, girl, same). That teaching gig was the only one she ever had. She shrugged off the pressure to become a governess like her sisters, and focused intensely on her writing. She was the determined, hard-working, creative, childless-by-choice one. The media would probably call her a “nasty woman” if she were around today.

Charlotte Brontë 

I must say I’m very biased here, because Charlotte’s magnum opus – Jane Eyre – is one of my favourite books of all time. Charlotte was the “first historian of the private consciousness”, writing a story where all of the action is told through the eyes and experiences of the central character. She pretty much invented first-person narration as we understand it today. Jane Eyre tells the story of a young governess who survives a shitty childhood (complete with evil stepmother, and a boarding school that violates every health code ever), only to fall in love with her boss (who happens to be keeping his mad wife locked in his attic). It was a deeply feminist book, very progressive for its time, and so much more accessible and readable than Wuthering Heights! A highly recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins 😉

Anyway, Charlotte was the pretty, popular one. Case in point: she received a pretty steady stream of marriage proposals throughout her life. One bloke, Reverend Henry Nussey, wrote her a letter asking for her hand – she turned him down because she just wasn’t that into him, and she thought (probably rightly) that being married to a clergyman would be boring as fuck. Another reverend – David Pryce – met her once (once!) at a tea party before he popped the question. She turned him down as well, figuring (once again, probably rightly) that he was bonkers. She did finally marry a curate (Arthur Bell Nicholls) – but even he had to propose twice before she finally conceded. No man was gonna hold Charlotte down!

Turns out, getting married was probably a bad call on her part anyway: Charlotte died less than a year after the ceremony, and it would seem that it was extreme morning sickness that done her in. Her death certificate listed “phthisis” (acute tuberculosis) as the cause of death, but today’s medicine points to an evil foetus as the more likely cause. Still, Charlotte did manage to out-live all of her siblings, and she was certainly more prolific than any of them. That’s a pretty strong case for her being the best Brontë of all time, don’t you think?

Anne Brontë 

When you start Googling people’s opinions on who was the best Brontë, you’re going to come across a squillion articles talking up Anne – the “forgotten” Brontë sister. People seem to really sympathise with poor little Anne, younger sister to two of the greatest female writers of all time. They do have a point: Emily and Charlotte would have been tough acts to follow.

Still, I’m not sure Anne is as “forgotten” as everyone says. Her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is certainly having a resurgence at the moment. It’s the story of a woman living in (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall; she really wants some alone-time, but drunk fuckboys keep coming at her from all directions. Anne basically used this book to sub-tweet all of her siblings. She sent up Charlotte and Emily, who wrote angry hard-drinking men as irresistibly attractive love interests, and her brother Branwell, who was himself an angry hard-drinking man in life. All of her writing had pretty strong moral messages, and her female characters were Strong Independent WomenTM, which was pretty controversial for the time.

Charlotte certainly wasn’t a fan of her younger sister’s work. She actually prevented The Tenant of Wildfel; Hall being republished after Anne’s death, saying “Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” She sounds mad jelly, doesn’t she?

Anne has historically been a dark horse for the title of the best Brontë, but judging by how much love she’s got on the internet over recent years, she’s probably the frontrunner now.

Branwell Brontë 

If you want to talk about the real forgotten Brontë, spare a thought for poor drunk Branwell. Popular opinion would have it that Anne is the one who got shafted, but I’m sure you have never read anything by Branwell – in fact, you probably didn’t even know there was a Brontë brother until now. Right?

In his younger years, Branwell’s father and sister thought he was an absolute genius – he was the darling of the family, intelligent and talented and driven. But, like so many white male boy-wonders before and since, his life quickly descended into a spiral of debt and addiction. Anne took pity on him and got him a job, but mad-dog Branwell got himself fired for having an affair with his boss’s wife (!). He frittered away the money he borrowed from his father (and, reportedly, stole from his employer), drinking and partying in establishments of ill-repute. He’d have been a fun guy to have along on a night out, but you probably wouldn’t have trusted him with your wallet.

As far as his writing goes, he and Charlotte actually co-wrote a book called Juvenilia when they were children. He followed that up with assorted pieces of poetry and prose. Things looked promising for Branwell when he got a few articles published in local newspapers… but he was ultimately waylaid by his love for opium. Branwell’s work is difficult to find today, and he’s barely a blip on the literary critique radar. He lives eternally in the shadow of his sisters, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d unironically call him the best Brontë.

So, who was the best Brontë?

Well, obviously, my vote is with Charlotte (and I give an honourable mention to Branwell, for being such a hot mess). But the true winner is up to you! Cast your vote by commenting below (or telling us your favourite over at KUWTP on Facebook), and subscribe to Keeping Up With The Penguins to be the first to know when we decide the winner 😉

 

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was no slouch when it came to writing, as we’ve established, but perhaps his true talent actually lay in reading. He would read anywhere up to ten books at a time, plus squeezing in at least a few newspapers and journals every single day. He would travel with a huge bag full of books for reading on the journey. The dude was voracious, in more ways than one.

In 1934, aspiring writer Arnold Samuelson knocked on Hemingway’s door, and asked to pick his brain. It was a ballsy move, given that Hemingway had a reputation for (a) being grumpy, and (b) liking guns. And yet, Samuelson wound up becoming Hemingway’s only true protégé, working in his employ and following him around the world for nearly a year. During that time, Hemingway was kind enough to jot down a list of books that (according to him) all writers must read. Samuelson kept the list, and published it in his book With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba. Hemingway told Samuelson not to bother with writers of the day, and focus on becoming better than his favourite dead white guys: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert.

Then, the following year (1935), Hemingway wrote a piece for Esquire magazine (Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter). Perhaps inspired by his list for Samuelson, he digressed from his point briefly to give us another list – the books he desperately wished he could read again for the first time. In fact, he put his money where his mouth is, and said that he would rather have another chance to read any one of them for the first time than have an income of a million per year. Big talk, eh? He lamented that there were “very few good new ones”, and that perhaps his days of enjoying previously-undiscovered literature were behind him (so dramatic).

Anyway, given that the guy clearly knew his shit, it might be high time we review a list of books recommended by Ernest Hemingway. (Pay extra-close attention if you’re an aspiring writer, there’s bound to be something in here for you…)

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Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

I’ve mentioned before that I think Emma Bovary is one of the best “bad women” in literature. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary follows the story of her attempts to escape the intolerable boredom of her provincial married life. She descends into a spiral of alcoholism, adultery, and debt, unraveling and undone by her unwieldy desires. It is a story exquisitely told, and the woman isn’t exactly painted in the best light – so it’s no surprise that it was right up Hemingway’s alley.

Dubliners – James Joyce

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen stories, all centered around Joyce’s distaste for his ‘dear dirty Dublin’, exposing the corruption, vulgarity, and heartlessness of his city of birth. The collection was the first notable publication of 20th century realist literature coming from Ireland, and to this day it is celebrated for its artful depiction of the infamous Dublin accent. Dubliners doesn’t appear on The List (I’m tackling Ulysses instead), but Hemingway’s recommendation of this gritty, brutal read still counts for something.


Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Another one of my favourite bad women – are you sensing a theme in Hemingway’s favourites? Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the best love stories (indeed, one of the best novels) ever written, so hats off to Tolstoy. Anna, a beautiful but self-indulgent woman, seeks the love of Count Vronsky (who is definitely not her husband), and basically sets fire to her 19th century Russian life. Tolstoy’s writing is beautiful, passionate, and intense – not for the faint of heart, though undoubtedly easier to tackle than the doorstop-worthy War & Peace (which also featured on Hemingway’s lists).

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Hemingway didn’t want to make it easy for us! Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is hard enough to wade through, but Papa took it one step further and recommended The Brothers Karamazov, an even more complicated and controversial novel. The story kicks off with the murder of cruel and corrupt landowner Fyodor Karamazov, and follows the fallout in the lives of his three sons (well, four, if you count the illegitimate son posing as a manservant). It’s a detective story, in a way, but it’s no Sherlock Holmes – you’ll need your thinking cap on for this early post-modernist tome.




 Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights definitely one of Hemingway’s more readable suggestions, so it might be best to start here if you’re new to the game. I once described Emily Brontë’s only novel in a single sentence thus: A bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned, culminating in his death – at which point, he and his true love spend eternity haunting their old stomping grounds, while their surviving children enter into incestuous marriages. Yes, it’s a long sentence, but I still think it’s a fairly accurate summary. You can check out my full review here.

The American – Henry James

Hemingway was the archetypal American “ex-pat” (because we only call brown people “immigrants”). He spent a decent chunk of his life in France and Spain, shooting and fishing and running with bulls. So it’s no surprise that he was really into The American, a story of a wealthy American man trying to marry into the French aristocracy. James dissects the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans in a melodramatic, but ultimately kind of comedic, way. James is one of the only authors to appear twice on The List – my reviews of The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl are coming soon!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Hemingway is quoted as saying he considered The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “the best book an American ever wrote”, and that it “marks the beginning of American literature” (kind of like Lennon saying that, before Elvis, there was nothing). It’s a big call, but I think we can all agree that Huck Finn is one of Twain’s most enduring and celebrated works, at least. It is the sequel to his previous (also renowned) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it explores the conflict between civilisation and nature – a lofty topic if there ever was one. My review of this one is also coming soon on Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the end, you can be pretty confident that any book recommended by Ernest Hemingway is going to be a heavy read. Everything he loved explored the underbelly of humanity in some way, and it seems like they got bonus points if they did it in Europe, or featured bad women front and center. What do you think of Hemingway’s recommended reads? How many have you read? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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Literature Wars: Fiction Versus Non-Fiction

This week, I had the pleasure of reviewing and recommending Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, one of just seven non-fiction books on The List. I’ve powered through a lot of fiction so far for Keeping Up With The Penguins, so switching to a non-fiction book was a great change of pace.

It got me to thinking: why do we choose fiction over non-fiction, or vice versa? Is one better than the other? I thought I’d break down the literature wars: fiction versus non-fiction.

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Who’s Reading What?

There have been a few different surveys on this subject, and they all show pretty much the same thing. For starters, there’s a significant gender differential: men lean towards non-fiction, while women lean towards fiction. There’s also an age difference, with young readers far more likely to read fiction, while older readers (especially baby boomers) prefer non-fiction. Basically, you can safely assume that the majority of young women are going to prefer novels, while male baby boomers are going to want a biography or a popular science book.

I’m not sure how much that really tells us, though. I started to think about the fiction versus non-fiction debate in terms of a metaphor. Something like this: non-fiction is the main course, and fiction is dessert. They serve different purposes, and having too much of one and not enough of the other is ultimately dissatisfying. The “right” ratio, though, depends almost entirely on someone’s personal preference (and yes, maybe that’s influenced by your age or gender, but it will vary widely regardless).

Some people just “aren’t dessert people”, and they’d rather have a second helping of chicken while everyone else scoops out the ice cream. Other people happily forego the main course altogether and have dessert-for-dinner. In the middle are the majority, people who prefer some reasonable combination of the two most of the time. That’s definitely where I fall.

Why Storytelling Matters

Noel Gallagher once famously told GQ Magazine that he thought fiction novels were a “waste of time”, and he’s not the only one who feels that way. There is a perception among some readers that non-fiction is somehow “smarter” than fiction. This is usually rooted in the idea that non-fiction deals in facts and data, while fiction falls into the realm of “escapist storytelling”.

However, the reality (and the science!) doesn’t quite back that up. In fact, non-fiction is often limited in its ability to communicate ideas and concepts because it is inextricably tied to objective realities. This is where fiction’s flexibility becomes its greatest asset. Take a book like Brave New World, for instance: Aldous Huxley communicated some very important ideas about society and power through the creation of a imaginary future world. Setting the story in this fictional context created an engaging, provoking piece of work that people wanted to read. If Huxley had written a dry treatise on what he thought was wrong with the way society was headed, would we still consider it a classic? Would we still teach it in the classroom today? Probably not.




Why Logic Matters

Fiction is not without its limitations. The only “requirement” of fiction is that it makes logical sense to the reader, no matter how preposterous the premise. If I may get a bit pretentious for a second, this idea goes all the way back to Aristotle. He told us, in Poetics, that logic is all that’s necessary to hold a story’s plot together. Readers will only accept a fictional story if the plot follows some kind of logical sequence – no one teaches the reader what this logic is, their brains make those computations all on their own, but it has to be there. In one sense, this is great, because the more logical cause-and-effect fiction we read, the better we become at understanding and interpreting these concepts (albeit subconsciously).

But have you ever heard that old maxim the truth is stranger than fiction? So many writers have stories about being unable to publish their non-fiction work, purely because it doesn’t follow these logical rules. To make another slightly-pretentious call-out, it was Mark Twain who said “Fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities; truth isn’t.”

What this means is that reading fiction exclusively will rob us of the opportunity to read and appreciate real-life stories that don’t follow the “rules”. Non-fiction can break all the rules it wants, but it has to get published (which is tough, if the reader finds it unbelievable because it doesn’t follow Aristotle’s cause-and-effect logic), and people have to actually read it in order to benefit. If we don’t have access to these stories, we miss out on the opportunity to learn more about how the world actually operates around us.

What’s About What’s Good For Your Brain?

Setting aside the logic issue for a second, scientific methods have demonstrated in a number of different ways that reading fiction is actually really good for your thinking meat. Remember how your brain is able to discern whether a story makes logical sense or not without you having to learn an algorithm first? Well, the more fiction you read, the better you become at understanding those patterns – and those patterns, it turns out, are a crucial element of empathy.

Reading fiction helps the reader learn to identify thought patterns, predict behaviour, understand perspective, and navigate emotional situations and moral dilemmas. Reading about the experiences of fictional people is basically exercise for your brain, making it stronger and priming it to understand your own experience and that of people around you.

We have seen in functional-MRI studies that the brain pathways used to understand fictional stories are the very same ones we use when we’re participating in social situations, and navigating the thoughts and feelings and intentions of others. Put another way, identifying with the feelings and actions of characters triggers the same parts of our brain that are active when we identify with the feelings and actions of real people. Isn’t that cool?

Non-fiction will give you knowledge, that much is undeniable. You’ll learn all about gravity, or origami, or the life of someone surprising, or the habits that will make you more successful – even if the information isn’t presented in a coherent logical narrative. You accrue all of that knowledge and store it for later use. But it’s fiction that gives you the skills to best apply it in your real life.

So, How Do We Choose?

The general consensus seems to be that fiction offers experiential access to new perspectives, increasing your capacity for empathy and basically making you a better person. At the same time, non-fiction feeds your thinking meat new facts and theories, expanding your mind in that way. Experiential wisdom isn’t much use without any knowledge to apply, and vice versa. So, each type of book has its own merit, and each provides its own benefit. In the literature wars of fiction versus non-fiction… it’s a toss-up! Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true 😉

Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself what you enjoy most, what you “feel like” in the moment, and what’s going to meet your goals. If you’re trying to read for fun and your years as a university student have made you involuntarily recoil at anything resembling a textbook, perhaps you should give non-fiction a break and focus on novels for a while (though I would strongly recommend still checking out A Short History of Nearly Everything – I promise it won’t make you want to pull out your eyeballs with a fork). On the other hand, if you’ve read nothing but romance novels for the past seven years, but you’re interested in learning more about the political history of your country, maybe try picking up a non-fiction book from your local library or bookstore and giving it a try.


What do you think? Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction? What was the last book you read outside of your usual preference? Let me know in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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A Complete(ish) Beginner’s Guide to Really Old Poems

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem dating back to the 14th century. It’s the oldest book on The List, and the only poem on there too. I’d heard about Inferno (the first “book” of The Divine Comedy) all my life, but I had only the vaguest idea what it was actually about. As I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s a whole bunch of really famous, really old poems that I’ve never read. I’ve bluffed my way through conversations about The Iliad, and snoozed through a film adaptation of Beowulf, but for the most part those poems remained a mystery to me. I figured I couldn’t be the only one, so I set about learning everything I could about them, all so I could bring you this: the complete(ish) beginner’s guide to really old poems.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh (Approx. 2,000 BC)

You thought The Divine Comedy was old? We’re talking really old here today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, a poem that old has been rehashed and rebooted so many times that we have no idea who wrote it anymore. At one point, five different stories were combined into a single epic poem and immortalised in the “Old Babylonian” version (scratched into a few tablets in the 18th century BC), and that remains the oldest surviving version of The Epic of Gilgamesh .

I’m assuming you’re not exactly up on your Mesopotamian history (I’m sure not), so the story might be a bit hard to follow, but it’s so crazy it’s worth bearing with me. This bloke, Gilgamesh, was the king of Uruk (an ancient city in modern-day Iraq). He was a bit of a dick to his people, so the gods created Enkidu, a “wild man” that could only be civilised through a crazy fuck fest with a local harlot (I’m not kidding). Once he got that out of the way, Enkidu challenged Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh won, but they had a laugh about it and an ancient Mesopotamian beer together afterwards. They became great friends, and worked out a plan to kill Humbaba The Terrible. See, Humbaba was guarding the sacred tree in the Cedar forest, and they wanted to chop it down to do some home improvement projects (or something). Meanwhile, the goddess Ishtar was pissed that Gilgamesh rejected her booty call, so she sent down the Bull of Heaven to sort him out… but he and his new buddy Enkidu took him down, too. Killer team, these two!

Anyway, the gods were pretty shitty that their “wild man” went off script like that, so they sentenced him to death. Gilgamesh was really cut up about losing his bro, so he wandered off into the woods to try and find the “secret to eternal life”. He looked long and hard, but only found some old dude who fed him annoying platitudes about death being part of life. Boo. Gilgamesh thought he might be onto something with a magic flower for a minute, but then a snake came along and ate it, so he was back to square one. In the end, he returned home and became a magnificent ruler, dying of old age.

The Epic of Gilgamesh hits the trifecta of being super-old (indeed, the oldest!), a crazy good epic story (see above), and pretty damn significant in literary terms. We knew almost nothing about the Sumerians (who lived in that area and wrote the thing all that time ago) prior to the discovery of these tablets. Plus, a lot of the story mirrors or echoes stories from the Bible, which wasn’t written until much later. Great floods, divine punishment – is The Epic of Gilgamesh corroborating evidence for these stories, or did the Christians just blatantly rip them off? Academic debate rages on…

You can get The Epic of Gilgamesh here.


The Iliad & The Odyssey (Approx. 900 BC)

We have to skip ahead quite a way to find what we can call the oldest surviving work of Western literature. Long after the Sumerians chipped away at tablets, the Ancient Greeks jumped on the bandwagon and started committing stories to written poetry. The Iliad and The Odyssey are widely attributed to our new friend Homer, but he was old and blind and never wrote anything down, and the stories had been on the Ancient Greek grapevine for quite a while, so it’s kind of controversial to definitively say that he “wrote” them. Either way, these poems were #1 on the charts in Ancient Greece, and their influence on art, literature and culture continues to this day.

The Iliad is an epic poem depicting a few weeks in the final year of the Trojan War, when there was big beef between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles (yep, like that thing on your foot, same one). The poem is super long, though, and it pulls in all kinds of history and prophesies for the future and stuff, so it basically tells the story of the whole war as well as a bunch of Ancient Greek legends. It was followed by The Odyssey, a sort of sequel, written not long after. This might be one of the few instances in history where the sequel is sexier than the original, because The Odyssey follows the story of Odysseus trying to get home after a big one out at Troy. His wife – Penelope – thought he was dead, so we also get the story of how she fought off all the fellas trying to slide into her DMs now that she’s single again. Both of these poems were originally composed in what’s now called Homeric Greek (Homer was such a big deal, he got a dialect named after him), and likely floated around in oral traditions (i.e., slam poets performing it on the street for cash) for quite a while before anyone could find a pen.

A couple extra fun facts for you: The Odyssey was kind of the first feminist poem, because women actually got to speak and make decisions and stuff (Penelope was a bad bitch, she totally ran things). And we refer to long journeys as “odysseys” now, which – you guessed it – we get from the poem. So as you can see, these poems – and our mate Homer – are a Big DealTM.

You can get a gorgeous leather-bound copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey together here.


The Mahābhārata (Approx. 900 BC)

Around the same time, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India emerged: the Mahābhārata. Indians generally attribute the poem to Vyasa (a Sanskrit name meaning, literally, “compiler”). He is revered as a deity in most Hindu traditions, being one of the Chiranjivins (immortals), and there is a festival (Guru Purnima) held in his honour each year. Funnily enough, he’s also a central character in this epic poem he wrote – fancy that! Academics and experts have tried their best to work out an accurate history of the poem (epics like that don’t just appear, you know, they are composed in bits and pieces over time). As best we can tell, the oldest written parts still in existence date back to about the 5th century BC, but the poem itself emerged at least a few centuries before that.

The Mahābhārata has many different translations, the most common of which describes it as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”. It tells the story of the Kuruksetra War, in great, great detail. Two cousins got into a hectic fight about who should be next in line to the throne, and next thing you know there’s a great whopping battle and a whole bunch of casualties and everyone heads into the afterlife. I know most epic poems are long (it’s kind of their defining characteristic), but get this: it is the longest epic poem still known to us today (and the longest one ever written, as far as we know). Unsurprisingly, then, in addition to the big war, it covers all kinds of other shit: philosophy, religion, royalty, family conflict, friendship, death, and everything else you can imagine. The longest version has about 200,000 lines, plus a bunch of parts that aren’t actually poetry at all (“prose passages”). That’s ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined. So if you want to give this one a crack, you’re going to need to allot a lot of time.

In terms of literary significance, ancient Indian texts often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West (we’re too busy figuring out whether Homer actually wrote shit down himself or whether someone else did it for him). Chances are, you hadn’t even heard of The Mahābhārata until right now. You might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita though (“the song of the Lord” for Hindu Indians), so take heart: the Gita is actually an extract from The Mahābhārata. In that sense, in terms of significance, this epic poem is on par with the Holy Bible. Let that sink in.

You can get The Mahābhārata in full here, or the Bhagavad Gita section here.

The Aeneid (19-29 BC)

Yes, a lot of stuff happened poetry-wise over the following centuries, but we can skip over it all to catch up to the Aeneid: an epic poem of Ancient Rome written by a bloke called Virgil (and it’s finally recent enough that we can lock down to a relative certainty who wrote what, yay!). Virgil was king shit when it came to poetry in Ancient Rome; he wrote this one and a handful of others that pretty much defined this period in literature.

As far as The Aeneid goes, it took him ten years to write it, so he worked bloody hard to get it right. It’s actually modelled off the Iliad and the Odyssey, so it’s stacks on stacks of brilliance. The Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan guy called Aeneas; he actually featured in the Iliad too, so it’s kind of like Virgil’s homage to Homer (and maybe an attempt to outdo him, just a little bit). The poem is split in half, and each section split into six (so twelve “books” all up). The first half covers Aeneas getting the fuck out of Troy after the Greeks came around and destroyed the joint (remember that wooden horse?). He and his Trojan buddies sail to Italy, with the larrikin idea of founding a new empire (Rome). Aeneas has a bit of a rough trot with curses and weather events and stuff. He even finds the love of a good woman, only for her to kill herself when he sails off to get on with his Rome-founding. When he finally makes it to Italy, he randomly descends into the underworld, and has a chat with his dead Dad. Finally, he comes back up and they’re in Italy ready to do some founding, and everything’s grand…

… until Aeneas kills one of the local herdsman’s pets, and there’s some drama over whether he’s an eligible suitor for the princess of the day. This kicks off a war, and Aeneas has to get his arse in gear to pull some troops together. There’s some nail-biting back-and-forth between the warring factions, lots of people die (which seems to be a common theme in these poems), but ultimately Aeneas and his posse are victorious. And Rome was built in a day! (Just kidding…)

Virgil actually died on a research trip to Greece while he was editing The Aeneid. He told everyone to burn the manuscript when he died, but no one listened – so even though he spent ten years working on it, we’ve ended up with some half-arsed epic poem that the writer probably wasn’t even happy with, and we hold it up as one of the greatest pieces of Latin literature ever written. It’s a cornerstone of the Western canon, and just about everyone who learns Latin is still forced to memorise at least part of it. Its influence can be seen in almost everything that came after it (including the following poems listed here)…

You can pick up a great translation of The Aeneid here.




Beowulf (975 AD)

Now we’re back on our own side of the Christ divide, and onto texts that were actually written in English. Beowulf is the oldest one of those (though the date of its actual composition is still up for debate, and nerdy academics get really fired up about it). Unfortunately, we have no bloody idea who actually wrote it, so the nerds literally just refer to them as “the Beowulf poet” (very creative).

So, there’s this pub in Denmark, right? (Seriously, this is how it actually starts). All the king’s soldiers have beers there after they’re done fighting battles. They sing, trade gifts, and have a jolly good time. They’re not very considerate of their neighbours when leaving the premises, though, and in this case their neighbour is the swampland demon Grendel. He gets the shits with their carry-on, so he goes on a killing spree every night until they quieten down. Then, a bloke living in Geats (that’s Beowulf!) hears about the big demon and figures he could take him, so he sails to Denmark.

This Beowulf character is actually pretty good; he manages to defeat Grendel and tear off his arm, even though he’d been out drinking with the boys all the night before. The Danes are all very grateful, but Grendel’s mother is really ticked off about her dead son, so she comes seeking revenge. She doesn’t kill Beowulf straight away, but she kills one of the king’s mates and runs away, figuring he’ll come chasing after her (which he does – men are stupid). She and Beowulf have this crazy underwater battle, and he manages to come out a winner again. Everybody’s happy!

You’d think that would be the end, but no. Beowulf heads home to Geats and ends up becoming king. Everything’s chill for a while, until some kid wakes up a dragon, and Beowulf ends up having to sort that out too. He’s gone a bit soft in his old age, and he dies of a whopping great dragon bite. His people burn him on a pyre, and he’s buried with a bunch of treasure.

There’s only one surviving original manuscript and it is literally about 1,000 years old. It nearly burnt to a crisp in a fire in 1731, so you can bet they’re keeping a bloody close eye on it now. J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with it, and literary criticism of Beowulf pretty much began with him. It’s still super-popular and modern versions and adaptations are being released all the time (remember the movie with Angelina Jolie a few years ago?), moreso than any of the other poems on this list.

You can get a highly-acclaimed version (and even a bilingual edition) of Beowulf here.


The Divine Comedy (1321 AD)

And here we are, back where I began with this week’s review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem split into three parts (Inferno – the most famous – then Purgatorio and Paradiso), describing Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, and eventual arrival in Heaven. It is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature. The Divine Comedy was so influential that it pretty much single-handedly cemented the Tuscan dialect (the one that Dante wrote in) as the official Italian language. Can you imagine a book deciding what language a country speaks today? Crazy!

Dante was so heavily influenced by Virgil (remember him from the Aeneid?) that he made him one of the characters, alongside himself, in the poem. Dante and Virgil (the characters) take a nice little trip down into the underworld, making their way through increasingly awful circles of hell until they get to the center where the worst sinners hang out. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then hike up the Mountain of Purgatory, where’s it pretty much more of the same but with less skin-flaying; everyone’s just hanging around praying, trying to get into Heaven. Finally, Virgil buggers off, and Dante meets up with the chick he had a crush on back in the mortal realm. She guides him through Heaven, and there’s lots of praising the Lord and stuff. Nice, eh?

When it first came out, The Divine Comedy was super-popular and everyone thought it was great… but then the Enlightenment happened and everyone just sort of forgot about it for a while. It didn’t come back into fashion until the 1800s, but it’s remained on the radar ever since. All kinds of writers and poets (T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, etc.) show evidence of its influence in their work. People keep re-translating the original, and there are new versions published all the time. It has inspired paintings, sculptures, films, video games, and just about every other media we have. Just goes to show: everything old is new again, eventually!

You can get the complete version (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) in English here, or a bilingual edition (English-Italian) here.

Paradise Lost (1667)

And, finally, almost four millennia from where we began back in ancient Mesopotamia, we land on Paradise Lost: an epic poem written by John Milton in 17th century England. It is usually discussed right alongside The Divine Comedy, because they cover off a lot of the same stuff, and are relatively close together in time (compared to the gaps between the others, anyway).

Milton’s poem starts in the middle of the action: Satan and a bunch of his rebel angel buddies have been banished to Hell, and he’s trying to get the rabble into some kind of order so they can get on with the demon business of corrupting all of Mankind. Satan draws the short straw, and has to make his way back up onto earth to find the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are hanging out. He transforms himself into a snake, cons Eve into eating one stinking apple and – just like that – all of humanity is doomed. Job done, says Satan. He leaves Adam and Eve alone to bone, and trots triumphantly back to Hell.

When he gets there, he has a big humble brag about what a great job he’s done taking down Paradise, but he craps on a bit too long and, before he can finish, he and all his mates transform into snakes permanently. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Adam and Eve have gone crawling to God. Adam’s having hallucinations about what’s going to happen to Mankind now that they’ve cocked everything up, and he is freaking out. God kicks them out, telling them to go sit outside and think about what they’ve done, and that’s pretty much where humanity is at now. The end.

It might seem like your basic Christian story, just throwing a bit of glitter on some Bible stories and calling it a day, but Paradise Lost has sparked generations of debate and controversy. Everyone seems to agree that it’s brilliant, but there have been some almighty arguments about what Milton was trying to say and whether we’re supposed to agree with what he said. Paradise Lost, like the others, continues to be seriously influential in art, music and literature today. In fact, you’ve probably watched a movie or listened to an album or looked at a piece of art influenced by Milton’s masterpiece, and just not realised it.

You can get the complete text of Paradise Lost here.


Phew! We made it. There are, of course, many significant and brilliant poems that occurred in the intervening years of this timeline, but these are the big ones – the ones that are probably going to come up in conversation or at a pub trivia night. Now, at the very least, your eyes won’t glaze over completely.

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Have you read any of these really old poems? Has this guide inspired you to seek any of them out? Let me know in the comments (or share over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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Right On, Sister: The Best “Bad Women” In Fiction

For too long, complex narrative arcs have been distributed unevenly. Our evil villains and deeply flawed protagonists have been almost exclusively male. When women do get a look-in, it’s often tokenistic or cliche (the trope of the overbearing mother, written in solely to justify a young male character’s anti-social behaviour, for instance). Women, the “gentler sex”, are almost always portrayed as merciful and nurturing. When they aren’t, their tactics for evil are usually reduced to “feminine wiles” – only men have been allowed to be violent, cruel, and unfeeling. However, with growing awareness of that imbalance has come a growing demand for “bad women” in literature: women who are mean, ugly, ungrateful, indulgent, deviant, and different. Just this week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Girl On The Train, narrated by a notoriously unreliable and unlikeable black-out alcoholic. I love seeing this particular pendulum swing back.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that all fiction prior to the 21st century was a barren landscape of retiring women. In fact, some of my favourite bad women are buried way back in the canon of the classics. It’s just that they were so infrequent as to be almost invisible. Finally, some of them are starting to see the light of day. In celebration of that, I’ve put together a list: the best “bad women” in fiction.

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Miss Trunchbull (Matilda – Roald Dahl)

This is the first example that I can recall from a book of my childhood, the incomparable Matilda. Miss Trunchbull struck fear in the hearts of children everywhere. She was a cruel and exacting despot, ruling with the iron fist over Matilda’s school and standing in stark contrast to beloved teacher Miss Honey. “The Trunchbull” laughed in the face of the maternal sensitivities often written onto female characters by default; she openly hated children (“I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting, they are the bane of my life”) and found increasingly creative ways to punish and torture them. I was terrified of her as a child, but the older I got the more I came to appreciate and respect her violation of the “rules” for women. She was ugly, brash, fiercely un-maternal, and she did not give a fuck what anyone thought.

Rebecca “Becky” Sharp (Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray)

Admittedly, I didn’t love Vanity Fair. The first few hundred pages were good, but the rest was a total snooze-fest. The only redeeming feature towards the end was Becky Sharp, the cunning, manipulative social climber. Granted, she definitely used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted (Thackeray was a man of his time, after all) but at least she was completely unapologetic about it. She had no compunction about luring men into her trap, and standing on their shoulders to get to the top of the social ladder. Becky wasn’t afraid to do the “wrong” thing; perhaps not a universally admirable trait, but in this case it got Becky a far happier ending than any of the other miserable sods in Vanity Fair. Read my full review of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair here.

Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert)

Emma Bovary had the audacity to become intolerably bored with the banal domestic life that her society had deemed “appropriate” for her. Over the course of Madame Bovary, she descended into a spiral of alcohol, adultery, and debt, culminating in her suicide. I suppose we could call her selfish and shallow; after all, she puts a hell of a dent in her husband’s finances to buy herself pretty things. But a more sympathetic reading shows her to be a caged bird, beating her wings and struggling to get free from her stifling, prescriptive life. As far as “bad women” go, she was the first one to make me think “There but for the grace of God”…




Sula Peace (Sula – Toni Morrison)

It takes a while for the character of Sula to emerge in Morrison’s critically acclaimed book Sula, but it’s damn worth the wait. Sula completely disregards every expectation of a woman in her position, and openly rejects the social conventions so determinedly upheld by her community. She defies gender roles, she is promiscuous, she is “disfigured” by a birthmark, and she is, above all, deeply independent. Plus she is a woman of colour: I only mention this because WOC antagonists are almost impossible to find in traditionally published fiction. Sula has been hugely influential in the development of feminist literary criticism, and the titular character is something to behold.

Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo (My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante)

I can’t speak to the rest of the Neapolitan series, but Lila from Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a bad woman in the making (a “bad girl” I suppose). Admittedly, she is very beautiful and charismatic, which buys her a certain kind of privilege, but she is also cruel, irreverent, manipulative, and overtly sexual. In the context of a poor town outside of Naples, Lila’s self-determination and bravery is all the more commendable. My full review of My Brilliant Friend is coming soon – subscribe to get it first!

Countess Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton)

The “badness” of women is a relative concept, of course. Countess Olenska’s indiscretions in The Age of Innocence might seem laughably benign to us today, but in her own time she was the height of scandal. The way that she spoke, her unconventional tastes, her lack of concern for social convention (clutch my pearls!), and her willingness to think for herself set her apart from the society wives of New York in the 1870s. Wharton wrote Countess Olenska masterfully, combining her brazenness and her tolerance with a deft hand. A bad woman ahead of her time! My review of The Age Of Innocence is coming soon, too!

Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy)

Fun fact: Tolstoy originally wrote Anna Karenina as a hideously ugly woman, in hopes of making the reader find her as disgusting as he initially did. As he wrote, he found her more and more redeemable, and that’s how she ended up a great beauty. In almost every other respect, though, she remains a bad woman. She seeks love in an affair outside of her marriage, and neglects her children (the “baddest” thing a woman can do). She indulges her own whims and desires in a way that Tolstoy intended for us to find repugnant, but there’s something irresistible about a woman who so determinedly sets fire to her own life.


I must add a couple of honourable mentions: Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter (read my full review of Hawthorne’s American classic here), and Irene Adler of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both worthy of the respect we should afford to all bad women. Are there any others I’ve missed? Who are your favourite bad women in fiction? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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Do You Use Your Local Library?

Last week, I talked about the best book bargains I’ve scored for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s great to buy books and I love the thrill of the hunt, but purchasing books can be out of reach (for one reason reason or another) for a lot of people. Mindful of that, I thought this week we could talk about a fantastic alternative. Do you use your local library?

Do You Use Your Local Library? Black and Red Text in White Box Above Image of Library Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If I misbehaved as a kid, my mother’s go-to threat was “I won’t take you to the library this week!”. (Yes, I was a huge nerd.) It worked every time; I loved the library. There was a restriction of ten books per card per fortnight at the time, so I forced both of my parents to get library cards as well – that allowed me to get 30 books per fortnight (yes, I was a huge nerd) and gave me a life-long love of gaming the system. I visit my current local library less frequently now (and I’m certainly not checking out 30 books at a time!), but my love of those quiet buildings packed with books has never quite left me.

Why use your local library?

For the obvious reason, of course: you can read as much as you like, for free! If you’re a would-be booklover but hesitant about the financial outlay of stocking your own shelves, the library has thousands of books that are all yours (temporarily) for the low, low cost of filling out a form.

Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of new books released each year so it’s hardly possible for your local library to stock every single one, but I guarantee you that if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can use their request service (every library has one). They might be able to get it for you through their library network (libraries in the same area or the same state can exchange books as required to meet their patrons’ needs). Or, failing that, they will special-order it for you from the publisher. At no cost to you. Isn’t that fantastic? The only downside might be a bit of a wait for a super-popular new release, but that seems like a small price to pay.

Bonus: your local library probably gives away older or surplus books for free as well. I know mine does; they set up a table out the front and just leave stacks of books for passers-by to take as they will. I’ve picked up a couple of great books this way, so I always detour past the library when I’m in the area to check it out.

If you’re not sure what you’re after, I can also guarantee you that the staff at your local library will be able to help. They are huge book-lovers themselves, so when they have a moment ask them if they can recommend a book to you. They’ll probably do you one better, and fetch you an armful of recommendations tailored to your preferences. Librarians are amazing people; they are an extended support network for people from all walks of life (just ask them about the work they do helping job seekers print resumes, or teaching baby boomers how to use technology), and they are big supporters of important anti-censorship causes (like Banned Books Week).

If you’re still not convinced that you should use your local library, let’s see if I can help some more…


“But I use an e-reader, so libraries aren’t for me!”

That’s where you’re wrong (no offence). Libraries are doing their best to keep up with the times, despite ongoing cuts to their funding (grrrr). Most, if not all, libraries have some kind of scheme in place for eBook loans. A lot of them even offer the devices themselves to borrow if needed. The eBooks you get through the library have been quality controlled, which is a helluva lot better than taking a gamble on a download that might be displayed in tiny font and riddled with typos. With an e-reader and a library card, you can usually arrange to borrow books online without even having to leave your couch. The books will be automatically “returned” from your device at the end of your borrowing time, meaning no late notices or special trips to make returns. It’s the best of both worlds!

Even beyond eBooks, libraries will often offer access to all kinds of paywall content. In the “old days”, they would have subscriptions to hard-copy newspapers and magazines and keep them on site for visitors to read. Now, your library card can grant you access to subscription outlets online. Make sure to ask the library staff what they have on offer!




“What about the authors? I like to buy books so they get their cut.”

That’s really admirable, and I take my hat off to you. As I said last week, I’m a big believer in compensating creators for their work. But that doesn’t mean that your local library is off-limits…

Australia has what’s called “lending rights”, a program that allows eligible writers and publishers to receive royalties for repeated free usage of their work (as is the case with a library). So, even though there’s no cost to you, the creators still get what they’re owed.

For international Keeping Up With The Penguins readers, it might not be the case where you live – the U.K. and Canada have a similar scheme, as far as I know, but it’s all a bit of a mystery to me. A quick spot of Googling should be able to get you some answers, or you can (of course) always ask a librarian!

“Libraries are for kids, I’ve outgrown them.”

Have you checked out your local library’s events schedule? You can usually find it on your local government’s website, or check out the bulletin board at the library building. They have stacks of events every month, and there’s a good chance that a lot of them are aimed at adults. They host everything from author readings and signings, to writing and technology workshops, to movie screenings, to local meet-ups and get-togethers. Best of all, the events are usually free, or very low cost.

The library is great for a lot of adulting; have you ever tried working there? This is especially handy for freelancers and people who work remotely. Libraries offer a quiet, climate-controlled oasis in a desert of busy neighbourhoods and crowded houses. Free wi-fi access is standard across library networks, along with free/cheap computer access, printing and scanning. Larger libraries can even provide meeting rooms to members, if you need to collaborate with or present to others.

Bonus: being that your local library is a government building, they typically accommodate all accessibility requirements. For people with limited mobility, this can be a huge relief! These buildings are designed specifically for wheelchair access, and other mobility aids as well. This is a great reason to consider hosting an event at your local library if accessibility for your guests could be a concern.

“My nearest library is hours away, it’s not worth the trip!”

Australia is big, so it’s not uncommon that your local library is more than a stroll around the corner. Again, I’m not sure of the situation internationally, but I know that a lot of Australian libraries make special considerations for people who live in very remote areas. They might offer to extend borrowing periods for instance (if you have to drive five hours into town to return a book, doing it every two weeks can be a pain in the arse, after all). Some will even post your books out to you – you guessed it – for free. Finding out what they can do for you is as easy as contacting them online or giving them a call; they are usually only too happy to help. After all, they’re there for you!




As I said, my love of the local library has never really left me. I’m constantly amazed at what they manage to do for their communities with the trickle of funding they now get from our governments. Do you use your local library? Why/why not? Let me know in the comments below (or let’s chat about it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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7 Books that Gave Us Words and Catch Phrases We Use Every Day

Ever been stuck in a no-win situation? A ridiculous double-bind? Found yourself hamstrung by bureaucracy? Maybe you’ve been charged a fee for not having enough money in your account, or found yourself unable to get a job without any experience, or denied tenancy in a new apartment without a current personal address. You might have called the situation a “catch-22”, even if you’ve never read the book that gave us the term (maybe you never even knew it was from a book, no judgement!). So many words and idioms slip into our language, but how often do we really know where they come from? Check out these seven books that gave us words and catch phrases we use every day.

7 Books That Gave Us Words and Phrases We Use Every Day - Black Text Overlaid On Image of Open Book Spine - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

As I’ve just mentioned, a catch-22 is widely understood to mean a predicament where the very nature of the problem prevents it from being resolved. It originated with Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22: the main character, Yossarian, wants to be excused from flying any more missions in the military (because every time he pilots a military plane, he risks death). He finds himself butting up against “catch-22”: pilots who are declared mentally unfit do not have to fly any more missions, but pilots who request to be declared mentally unfit are clearly of sound mind (as they want to avoid dying), so they must fly. Fun fact: the book might have actually been called Catch-18 (sounds funny, doesn’t it?), as that was Heller’s original title, but he and his publisher agreed to change it when other novels featuring the number eighteen in their title appeared around the same time. (I’ve reviewed Catch-22 in full right here!)

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

If someone is referred to as “Jekyll and Hyde”, generally we understand that they have two distinct personalities: one gentle, refined and well-behaved, the other hedonistic, violent and hostile. This is lifted directly from the plot of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where the well-respected Dr Jekyll invents a scientific process by which he morphs into Mr Hyde, allowing him to indulge his aberrant urges without fear of losing face (check out my review here for more details!).

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

I had to triple-check this, because it didn’t seem right, but believe it or not it was Dickens who gave us the word “boredom”! English-speakers had been using the word “bore” for about a century, but Dickens was the first to turn the feeling into a noun. It appeared in his 1853 novel Bleak House. How on Earth could we have lived without a word for that? Thank you, Dickens!


Cabbages and Kings – O. Henry

What would you call a tropical nation with an unstable government and an over-reliance on the export of a single product? A “banana republic”, of course! The term is drawn from the novel Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it is set in the fictional “Republic of Anchuria” in Central America. The Republic’s primary export was – you guessed it – bananas. Funnily enough, the title of the book was itself drawn from The Walrus and The Carpenter, a poem that appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I still remember my mother explaining to me the meaning of the phrase “a pot calling the kettle black”. As I recall, she said that it meant to accuse someone of something that you’re doing yourself – which is pretty much spot on. What she didn’t tell me (not that I blame her) was that the idiom was popularised by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Don Quixote back in the 17th century. He lifted it from the common understanding at the time that both pots and kettles made of cast-iron would get black with soot in the kitchens of the era. It’s pretty bloody enduring as far as idioms go, because we still use it today, some four centuries later!




Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Remember I mentioned Alice in Wonderland just before? Well, it warrants its very own spot in this list! Among a whole bunch of funny turns-of-phrase (“through the looking glass”, “down the rabbit hole”, “Cheshire cat smile”, “off with her head”) we get “mad as a hatter” – meaning seriously bonkers! Well, to put it more politely, someone is “mad as a hatter” if they’re behaving erratically, speaking nonsense, or displaying any kind of unusual behaviour. Carroll borrowed the idea from a well-known phenomenon of hat manufacturers being struck down with mercury poisoning (yes, that was a thing). In so doing, he created his character The Mad Hatter, and a phrase that was cemented into the English language.

1984 – George Orwell

A lot of the phrases from 1984 are getting extra air-time at the moment, as a lot of Orwell’s predictions seem to be coming eerily true. Of course, we all understand the concept of “Big Brother” – the totalitarian dictator, always watching and thus completely controlling his society.  Orwell also created “Newspeak”, a fictional language that gave us gems like “doublethink” (being able to hold two contrary or opposing ideas at the very same thing). We really do owe him a lot!

Even if you never read a single one of these books, at least you can give a smug smile every time you use one of the phrases, knowing that you’ll be able to explain the origins of them if anyone asks (and even if they don’t!). Are there any words or phrases from literature that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments (or use them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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Cha-Ching! Best Book Bargains

Starting the Keeping Up With The Penguins project presented a bit of a problem: books ain’t cheap. I set myself a limit of $10 per book, but even if I stuck to that 100% I would still end up spending north of a grand. Plus, in my soul, I’m a firm believer in compensation for artists. Getting the books cheaply is great for me and everything, but authors should get paid what they’re worth for their work. On top of that, I adore independent and second-hand bookstores. Every dollar that I spend with them means employment for the creative writing student, and bills paid for the small business owner, and support for small presses, and opportunities for emerging writers.

So, my life for the last year has been a delicate balancing act: finding books that fit within my budget, while upholding my own ideals about the book industry. I love the thrill of the hunt – nothing compares to finding a long-sought-after tome buried in a bookstore bargain bin, especially when you can take it home in exchange for just the shrapnel that you have in your pocket. It turns out I have a real knack for it! There’s a perception that buying books through smaller and independent retailers means spending more: I’m here to prove that’s not the case! I thought I’d share a few of the best book bargains I’ve found for Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Best Book Bargains And Where To Find Them - Text overlaid on image of stacked coins - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula was one of my first bargain bin finds, and I walked home afterwards on cloud nine! I spied it at my local secondhand bookstore, marked at the princely sum of $3. You can get a copy almost as cheap here.

Dracula - Bram Stoker - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

I’ll admit I broke the budget with this one, but I feel it’s justified! Technically, my $10 limit was just for The Picture of Dorian Gray, but this book contains everything that Oscar Wilde ever wrote, so if I average it out… it was a steal! I found this one in a tiny crammed bookstore in Tel Aviv (of all places!) while on my honeymoon. I paid 50 shekels, which converted to roughly $20 back home.

Used Book Store - Tel Aviv - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

When I set out to find Yes Please, I thought it’d be a fool’s errand. Poehler had reached peak popularity at the time, for her performances in Saturday Night Live during the American election. But I struck gold! I spotted her memoir in the window of my local secondhand bookstore, marked at $10 (right on budget!). It was super-early and they weren’t open yet, and I had to go into the city – so I messaged my husband immediately and made him promise to be waiting outside the door when the owner arrived, to secure it before someone else did. Because he loves me, he did just that, and that’s how it came to be this week’s review!

Yes Please - Amy Poehler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

I got the best kind of bargain for Moby Dick: it was free! I actually “borrowed” (re: stole) it from my husband’s collection. Of course, in doing so, I ended up with a copy so excessively worn and dog-eared that I was scared to open it, lest it fall apart. Still, it (miraculously) held up, and it served me well! You can actually get it for free, too!

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Book Thief was #1 on the Dymocks 101 list of 2016, so I knew finding a bargain copy was just a matter of patience. When a book is announced as a winner of any kind, there’s a rush to buy it and everywhere sells out, then there’s a lull as everyone reads it, and then eventually it starts showing up in garage sales and secondhand bookstores. Sure enough, I managed to pick up The Book Thief about twelve months after its nomination, for just $4. There’s a few copies almost as cheap left on Amazon, get in quick!

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

I actually bought this one many years before Keeping Up With The Penguins was even conceived. I was picking up something else entirely from Big W in the small regional town where I lived at the time, and I spotted The Hunger Games marked down to just $2.37. I’d heard of the book and figured I’d want to read it one day, so I grabbed it. And, what do you know, I finally got around to it!

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

My purchase of A Passage To India is notable simply for the fact that I don’t often buy hardcovers, but this one was such a bargain I couldn’t resist! I find hardcovers bulky and annoying a lot of the time (even though many of them are beautiful, drool!). Still, when I spied this beautiful, perfect, pristine edition in that ever-giving local bookshop, I couldn’t resist! An absolute bargain at just $7.




Now, just because I’m a local bookstore fiend doesn’t mean there aren’t cracking deals to be found through the bigger retailers. I’m not that much of a snob! 😉

Dymocks tends to run some fantastic 3-for-2 promotions, and I’m always keeping an eye out for deals on the Penguin Classics (particularly when they come with the gorgeous Penguin merch!).

Another hot tip: Amazon actually has hundreds of classics available for free on Kindle! Works that have passed into the public domain (after their author has been deceased for 75 years) are downloadable for free, or at least very cheaply! If you’re hung up on hard copies, though (like I am!), you can still get some amazing deals. Check out all the freebies here – you’ll be surprised at what you might find!

What’s the best bargain you’ve ever found on a book? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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7 Books You Can Read Over and Over Again

Some books are evergreen: no matter how often you read them over, you’ll get something new out of them every single time. Plus, there’s something super-comforting about reading a familiar story, knowing its characters inside out and chuckling at your favourite joke for the fiftieth time. Often, we form our impressions of these books in childhood, and returning to them later gives us a nostalgic rush. Other times, it might be a book that strikes us as so significant, so funny, so insightful, so relevant, or so heartbreaking that we can’t help but return to it time after time. To celebrate these beloved books, this week on Keeping Up With The Penguins we’ll take a look at seven books you can read over and over again.

7 Books You Can Read Over and Over - Black Text in Transparent White Box Overlaid on Image of Girl in Pink Dress Reading on Carriage in Green Grass - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

This is a selfish addition to this list, I’ll admit, because I reviewed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves just this week, and I absolutely fucking loved it. I cannot recommend it highly enough! Even though I think your true enjoyment of this book is predicated on the plot twist that occurs about a third of the way in (don’t click through to the review unless you’ve already read it!), I think I’ll still enjoy reading it over and over again. Indeed, early passages have new meaning when you know what’s coming. Plus, it’s just so damn funny and heart-wrenching in equal measures that I won’t be able to help coming back to it. (Read my full review here… if you’re ready for it!)

1984 – George Orwell

I talk about George Orwell’s 1984 a lot here on Keeping Up With The Penguins because it is one of my favourite books of all time and it is the ever-fucking-giving-tree of relevance and significance. I’ve re-read it at least a dozen times, and every time something new jumps out at me. One time, I got really hung up on how it expressed the idea that history is written by the victors. Another, I was struck by what Orwell was saying about human relationships, and the context in which they occur. On my very first reading, back when I was a teenager, I had a Black Mirror-esque freak-out about the idea of technology watching us (that was in the days before smart phones, little did I know…). What I’m saying is that you’ll never get tired of re-reading 1984, and there’s always something new to chew on.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

My review of Jane Eyre is coming soon on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but for now suffice it to say that this book convinced me – now and forever – that Charlotte is by far the superior Brontë. Jane Eyre is beautifully written, and should be read and re-read for its masterful storytelling alone. Beyond that, though, it has all the makings of a favourite classic: romance, mystery, adventure, injustice, and conflict. I’ll turn to this book in times of need, like a hot bath or a stiff drink.




Harry Potter (Series) – J.K. Rowling

OK, I’m cheating – firstly, this is actually a series of seven books, and secondly, I think just about every bookworm my age has already re-read the Harry Potter books at least a couple of times. I myself read them to the exclusion of just about all else for a couple of years. I’m not sure they meet the mandate of giving the reader something new every time, but Harry Potter defined a generation of readers. Even now, it’s great to flick through them, remembering how it felt to read them with wonder for the first time. It’s so funny to see kids “discovering” the series now, declaring their Hogwarts houses on their Instagram bios and getting lightning bolt tattoos (it’s probably the same way our parents felt when we all discovered ’80s pop).

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

If Harry Potter cheats the mandate, I can guarantee you that Moby Dick does not. You will never run out of new shit to find in this rabbit warren of a book. It is six hundred pages of mostly digression, with Melville’s thoughts running off in every which direction. Even if we set aside the actual content, Melville’s experimentation with style and form and narrative perspective can keep you busy for at least a few re-reads. Every time you pick it up, you’ll find some new poignancy to your own life circumstances, and the world around you, because it’s just so broad that you couldn’t possibly not find something to relate to. Give it a try (like I did)!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

When I first started telling people that I was reading my way through the List of popular and classic books, no fewer than six of them asked me whether The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was on it. It’s been recommended to me far more than any other book, and it’s a long-time favourite of so many readers. It’s not hard to see why: “the adventures of the last surviving man following the destruction of Earth” is a pretty compelling premise! It is equal parts hilarious, quotable and brilliant. Another one to turn to when you’re feeling down, or need to find some comfort in its familiarity.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Eagle-eyed Keeping Up With The Penguins readers will know that my first shot at Wuthering Heights didn’t go so great. I had a lot on my mind at the time, and just lacked the emotional strength to fully immerse myself in Emily Brontë’s story of love (and incest, and madness, and fear) on the moors. That said, I can totally see myself returning to this story a hundred times over and still finding buried treasures that take me by surprise. Wuthering Heights is definitely evergreen, as the decades of academic analysis online can attest. Cathy and Heathcliffe aren’t done with me yet!


Of course, any book can be read over and over again – there’s probably as many evergreen books as there are readers, because everyone will feel differently about what each books means to them. What books can you read over and over again? Let me know in the comments below (or share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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