Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 5)

Best Of: Keeping Up With The Penguins tl;dr Reviews

If there’s one thing I pride myself on here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, it’s my tl;dr reviews of classic and popular literature. I aim to tell you everything you need to know about a book in a single sentence, summing up the entire plot and my reaction to it. This past year, I’ve reviewed a stack of wonderful books, and I think it’s high time we revisit some of them – the tl;dr version πŸ˜‰

P.S. If you’re feeling a little out of the loop, “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read”. It’s frequently used across the internet to indicate a very brief summary of a very long preceding ramble…

tl;dr Reviews of Classic Literature - Text on Blue Background with Images of Book Covers - The Divine Comedy, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Turn Of The Screw

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. All the characters talk and act like self-indulgent teenagers – it’s basically an old-timey version of The OC.


Read my full review of The Great Gatsby.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.


Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Tl;dr? Wild is Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor. I would recommend it to mid-20s fuck-ups like me, who don’t mind clumsy metaphors.


Read my full review of Wild.

Wuthering Heights – Emily BrontΓ«

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any personal emotional turmoil going on, go for it.


Read my full review of Wuthering Heights.

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is a good one to talk about at parties, but if it’s tl;dr, just picture an old-timey Gilmore Girls.


Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter.

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

My tl;dr review: Faulkner drunk texts the death and burial of a Southern woman with a crazy family.


Read my full review of As I Lay Dying.

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

My tl;dr summary would be this: a barren, drunk, stalker “girl” witnesses what could be a clue to what could be a crime, and you’ve got to swim through some very choppy waters to get yourself back on solid ground after that. If you’re a thriller aficionado you might find it cliche, and if you’re in a dark place it might trigger some stuff for you: you’ve been warned.


Read my full review of The Girl On The Train.

The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

My tl;dr summary of The Divine Comedy overall is this: Inferno is hilarious and great, Purgatorio is just okay, Paradiso is a heap of shit. Read Inferno, and don’t bother with the rest (unless you need a sleep aid).


Read my full review of The Divine Comedy.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

My tl;dr review of The Sun Also Rises would be this: it’s a self-indulgent story about drunk Americans and Brits trying to fuck one another and ignore their existential crises in Spain, whinging all the while and bruised male egos galore. Proceed with caution.


Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises.

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

My tl;dr review: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.


Read my full review of American Sniper.

Paper Towns – John Green

My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. It’s great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.


Read my full review of Paper Towns.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Tl;dr? A governess goes bonkers and starts seeking ghosts (that may or may not be real, no one can figure it out), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense but told in the wordiest possible way.


Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

A tl;dr review of The Picture of Dorian Gray: imagine giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth, and and endless supply of drugs and alcohol.


Read my full review of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Can you give me a tl;dr summary of your favourite read this year? Drop it in the comments below (or share it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


Best Christmas Gifts for Book Lovers

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for book lovers! December is usually a month of restraint, where we resist the urge to buy new books and bookish accessories, in the hopes of an awesome haul from friends and family come Christmas Day. Of course, for non-readers, this can present a bit of a quandary: what should you buy for a bookworm? Don’t books seem too obvious? Never fear, I have you sorted! Here’s a short-list of the best Christmas gifts for book lovers, with something at every price point!

Best Christmas Gifts For Book Lovers - Text Overlaid on A Christmas Scene - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Under $10: Bookmarks

It might seem too simple, but trust me: a great bookmark never goes astray! Every book lover needs a stash of bookmarks, lest they find themselves forced to ruin their precious special editions with dog ears. A gift of bookmarks shows that you’ve noticed your loved one’s reading habit, that you care for them and want what’s best for them (and their books!), which makes them a very thoughtful gift… not to mention insanely affordable! You don’t have to spend much to make a big impression this Christmas. Peter Pauper Press over on Amazon has a huge selection available, all under $10!

Under $20: Literary Mugs

The best accompaniment to a good book, especially when it’s chilly outside, is a hot beverage. And you know what you need for a hot beverage? A fantastic literary mug! My personal favourites are the ones that are heat reactive, revealing new images or words when they’re filled with tea or coffee. I also love mugs with funny bookish quotes, and adorable illustrations. Check these out…

Under $30: Literary Shirts and Tote Bags

Bookworms will never miss an opportunity to share their love for literature through fashion. These gorgeous t-shirts are 100% cotton and emblazoned with detailed illustrations of classic book characters and covers (both masculine and feminine cuts available). A lot of the designs are also available on tote bags, which are the perfect size for carting around stacks of books! Plus, the brains behind the operation – Melissa – is absolutely ace. She’s offering Keeping Up With The Penguins readers a full 20% off anything from her online store over the holidays! Enter the code KEEPINGUPWITHTHEPENGUINS20 and stock up!

Literary Book Gifts Tote Bags and T-Shirts

Get 20% off with code KEEPINGUPWITHTHEPENGUINS20 when you shop here.

Under $50: Book Ends

One of the most precious gifts I ever received was a set of rustic poodle-shaped book ends. A dear friend gave them to me for my 21st birthday, and I have carried them with me all across the country (indeed, eagle-eyed Keeping Up With The Penguins readers will have spotted them once or twice in my Instagram feed). Book ends come in every price range, from under $10 to over $100, but in my opinion the best value is to be found in the middle. You’ll want something on the heavy side, to ensure durability and the capacity to hold up heavier rows of hardcovers and thick tomes. Here are some of my current favourites:

Under $50: Bookish Scarves

Bookish scarves are subtle, but gorgeous – exactly what the book lover needs to stay warm in winter! Plus, scarves are the most versatile fashion item ever, so even if they’re not so into wearing them, you can be pretty sure your book lover will find a use for it somewhere along the line. My favourite bookish scarves are the Austen-themed ones, but there are stacks of others out there: Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, generic book cover patterns, library punch cards, other classics…

Over $100: eReaders

If you’re aΒ very generous friend or family member, this is the option for you. Maybe your book lover is stuck in the dark ages (like me!), still carrying paperbacks everywhere she goes. Or maybe you know a bookworm who has been all across eBooks since the beginning, but desperately needs a technology upgrade! Either way, an eReader is the way to go this Christmas. You can get a tried-and-true Kindle, or you can branch out and try one of the many alternatives. You could even get a generic tablet, which works with most eBook formats and has a lot more functionality over and above that! Whichever way you go, your book-loving loved one will love you forever πŸ˜‰

(Don’t worry, if you don’t have the cash to splash, there are other options! Amazon also sells refurbished models at a fraction of the cost, or you could pick them up a cover for their current reader, or even an Amazon voucher that goes that much further with eBooks!)

Need more ideas? This month, every Keeping Up With The Penguins subscriber gets a FREE Christmas gift guide for book lovers, packed with plenty of ideas for every price range. Enter your email address below to get the complete guide today!

What’s your favourite Christmas gift for book lovers this year? Tell us in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


 

9 Best Seller Books Worth Reading

A little while back, I read American Sniper, and I wasn’t a fan. In fact, I was so pissed off, I ended up putting together a list of best seller books that aren’t worth your time. I’ve been thinking about that, and it doesn’t seem fair to tar all best sellers with that same brush – some of them do, in fact, get to the top of these lists by merit. So, as a little in-house counterpoint, I’ve put together a list of nine best sellers worth reading.

9 Best Sellers Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Black and White Image of a Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What Is A “Best Seller”?

A “best seller” is generally understood to be a book that has been included on one (of many) lists of top-selling titles. These lists are indeed usually based on sales figures and library-borrowing records, but they may also use other criteria (including, controversially, editorial discretion). The most famous of these lists is, of course, the New York Times Best Seller List, which has been running since 1974. Granted, snapping at its heels is the Amazon Top 100, which reflects the brute number of books sold through that platform over the given period, but it’s still the NYT ranking that you’re likely to see used in publisher promotional material.

Actually, when you start digging into the history of the New York Times Best Seller List, you learn a lot about how we value books and authors, trends in publishing over time, and the ways in which best seller lists don’t always reflect the reality of “best” or “selling” (ironically enough). For instance, there have been 780 books reach the #1 spot since the list was created, from 249 authors – so, one can logically deduce that the best predictor of having an NYT best seller is, well, having another NYT best seller. In a different vein, the genre of likely #1s has shifted – away from literary and historical fiction, and towards mysteries and thrillers. Neither of these trends necessarily reflect the truth of book sales. After all, do you really believe that the public is only buying books by authors they’ve read before, or abandoning historical fiction in favour of a new generation of detective novels?


Top Selling Versus Best Seller: Spot The Difference!

Let’s take a look at authors, shall we? Stephen King has had the most New York Times #1 Best Seller books by a single author, coming in at thirty-five (though James Patterson overtakes him when you take into account co-written books, with sixty-three unique titles). But when you look at the best-selling authors of all time, using more objective figures, it’s actually a dead heat between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, both of whom are estimated to have sold between two and four billion books each. Danielle Steele and Enid Blyton come in behind them, with several hundred million books apiece – King and Patterson don’t even rate a mention! In fact, the first author that appears in both lists, as far as I can tell, is J.K. Rowling (who has sold some 500 million, at last count).

As to the books themselves, The Da Vinci Code is the longest-running #1 book – it held the consecutive spot for 59 weeks… but not consecutively (it only managed 14 weeks in a row). The longest consecutive run was a relatively little-known romance novel called Love Story, which managed to hold onto the number one spot for 41 weeks straight. And, yet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records (is there any higher authority?), the Bible is the longest-running best-selling book of all time, with over 5 billion copies sold and distributed around the world. The Da Vinci Code has sold a paltry 80 million copies, by comparison, far fewer than Don Quixote (500 million), or The Hobbit (100 million).

These discrepancies, between the “top selling” books and the “best seller” books, occurs in large part because best seller lists only take into account sales over a specific period. In, say, a random week of 2003, The Da Vinci Code may well have sold more copies than the Bible… but the same cannot be said over a period of a hundred years or more. The problem is that most people don’t understand what “best seller” actually means, and it’s easy to confuse it with “top selling”… and this is the power of social proof that publishers exploit to convince us to buy a new release.

You can read more about the calculation of best sellers here, but for now, suffice it to say that being a “best seller” doesn’t necessarily make a book one of the “best”… So, I’ve sifted through historical records of New York Times best selling fiction, Guardian best seller lists, Publishers Weekly sales figures, and more, to find the diamonds in the rough. Here are nine best seller books worth reading…




Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (Best Seller in 1958)

The fact that Lolita cracked the #1 position on the New York Times Best Seller List is particularly noteworthy, given the uphill battle that Nabokov faced to even get it published in the first place. American publishers were (probably rightfully) concerned about its content: it is, after all, an intense, graphic depiction of a stepfather’s repeated assaults on a young girl, and there is no happy ending for anyone involved. I know it sounds awful, but I promise you it’s some of the most beautiful prose you’ll ever read. In fact, Lolita is one of my favourite books of all time (and it very almost never saw the light of day!).

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) – David Reuben (Best Seller in 1970)

You might think, given my penchant for literary smut, that this is a dirty book – and, you know what, I’m sure there are some very conservative folks out there who would call it so… but really, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) was one of the first mainstream sex manuals written by a physician, and it was a cornerstone of the Sexual Revolution. I didn’t even realise it had reached the #1 spot on the NYT best seller list until I began researching for this blog. I think you’d be hard pressed to get a book with such a liberal attitude to healthy sex up there today! It has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and an updated edition entered circulation in 1999.

Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling (Best Seller in 1999)

Not only did Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone soar to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List (as did every other Harry Potter book at some point or another), it hung around so long and remained so popular that the Times ended up creating an entirely separate children’s best seller list, so that J.K. Rowling’s series didn’t hog the spotlight. Honestly, you probably couldn’t find a best seller list that hasn’t featured the Harry Potter books at some point (unless they were deliberately excluded). The series has sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, it is one of the most-translated books in history (over 80 languages), and the final installment (Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows) holds the record for the biggest first print-run in history (twelve million copies) as well as having sold fifteen million copies in a single day. If all of that isn’t enough to convince you that this ubiquitous series is at least worth a look-in, then perhaps you should consider that you’re probably out of step with an entire generation if you haven’t read it yet πŸ˜‰




To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (Best Seller in Multiple Years)

I include To Kill A Mockingbird not just because it’s a fantastic book (read my complete review here) but also because it’s had a really weird trajectory in the best seller lists. It had various peaks and troughs between 1960 and 1961 (though Publishers Weekly confirms that it was one of the best selling books of 1960 in the U.S., and it has sold 40 million copies since publication)… then, it randomly re-emerged in the top 10 in 2016. This late spike is likely attributable to the death of Harper Lee early that year, but it seems like a rather dramatic up-tick to me, and not one that you see often with other books!

Bossypants – Tina Fey (Best Seller in 2011)

I know Tina Fey has a core audience of dedicated fangirls, but I think that she is seriously underrated by the public at large. With the release of Bossypants, her audience expanded exponentially, and she shot to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. It is an autobiographical comedy, full of hilarious anecdotes, brilliant insights, and sage wisdom – through a deeply feminist lens. Awesome, eh?

Wild – Cheryl Strayed (Best Seller in 2012)

A recommendation from Oprah, and inclusion in her Book Club, is pretty much a one-way ticket to sales success. Plus, when it gets Reese Witherspoon’s seal of approval – not only does she recommend it to her followers, but she buys the movie rights, produces the adaptation, and stars in it – the book is on a gravy train with biscuit wheels. That’s what happened for Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. I reviewed it for Keeping Up With The Penguins here. It was not at all what I was expecting; I thought I was in for a light and fluffy find-yourself adventure, but instead I got a grueling 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, fuelled by intense grief and spiritual yearning. It was a great read, and well-deserving of its moment in the sun at the top of the New York Times Best Seller List.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer (Best Seller in 2012)

I actually read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close quite some time ago, long before I started this project, so I hope I’m remembering it correctly. I recall feeling extremely touched by the story, and I could hardly put it down. It’s not hard to see why it peaked at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, though – it’s the story of a young boy who traipses all across New York, on the hunt for what remains of his father, who died in the September 11 attacks.

The Martian – Andy Weir (Best Seller in 2015)

The Martian is an incredible self-publishing success story, one of those overnight-successes that was years in the making. Andy Weir had a devil of a time getting an agent interested in his work, so he began publishing The Martian serially, for free, on his own website. After a bunch of readers expressed interest, he released it as a single e-book at the lowest possible price point on Amazon… only to hit the Amazon best seller list for science fiction in the blink of an eye. Sure enough, the big publishers came calling, and before you know it this quiet little book about a man trapped alone on Mars makes its way all the way to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list in 2015. I loved The Martian, it was brilliant and hilarious, and I’ve reviewed it in full here.

A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson (Best Seller Over Time)

It’s a really, really tough slog to get a popular science book to the top of any best seller list… and, yet, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything ended up on the Guardian’s list of the top 100 selling books of all time in the U.K.! Along these same lines, I didn’t see Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (which I reviewed this week by the way) at the top of any list, but the most recent estimates suggest that, since its publication, there has been a copy sold for every 750 people on the planet, so that’s a pretty damn good record. I would definitely say that one (or both!) of these true best sellers are worht reading, even if you don’t think you’re into science – you’d be surprised how often little fun facts about black holes and the theory of gravity come in handy πŸ˜‰


Have I missed one of your best seller favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

Why Don’t Women Win Literary Awards?

There are certain literary awards that have serious brand value. Even if you’re not a bookworm you recognise their names, and you might have even bought a book or two because you’d heard of its win and figured it must be good. That’s the real value of these prizes: it’s not so much about the monetary value of the prize itself, but the boost in visibility and longevity of a writer’s career. That’s why it stinks that women miss out so often (particularly when they have the audacity to write about women). Of course, there are plenty of prizes specifically for women (The Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK being one example), but for whatever reason (and I have a few ideas) they don’t seem to carry the same cachet. Why don’t women win literary awards? Looking at past winners like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (she scored the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961), it’s really hard to fathom a reason. So, let’s take a look at some of the fantastic women who have beat the odds and won a major literary award…

Why Don't Women Win LIterary Awards? Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award that celebrates excellence in literature, as well as journalism and musical composition, established in 1917. It is currently administered by Columbia University in New York, and winners are awarded $15,000 in cash. The first woman writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction actually came pretty early on: Edith Wharton got the gong for The Age of Innocence in 1921. Since then, though, women have won the Pulitzer just 28 times – that’s 29 out of 91 awards (taking out the years that the prize wasn’t awarded at all), a mere 32%. For an entire decade, in the 1950s, no women won at all – the jury recommended Elizabeth Spencer for The Voice At The Back Door in 1957, but the Pulitzer board declined to award it to her.

Still, among that third of the winners, there are some personal favourites of mine: Margaret Mitchell (for Gone With The Wind in 1937), and our girl Harper Lee (for To Kill A Mockingbird in 1961). Notable WOC winners include Alice Walker (for The Color Purple in 1983), and Toni Morrison (for Beloved in 1988).


Nobel Prize for Literature

The Nobel Prizes are basically a hot mess as far as gender equality is concerned. As of 2017, Nobel Prizes had been awarded to 844… and 48 women. Taking out the awards given to companies and organisations, that’s just 5% of Nobel Prizes going to the gender that makes up half the population. Tsk tsk!

Of those 48 winners, fourteen have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Selma LagerlΓΆf went first, winning the prize in 1909 (six years after Marie Curie famously became the first female winner ever, getting the Nobel Prize for Physics). The committee cited their “appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings”. Next was Grazia Deledda, who won in 1926 “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general” (who writes those press releases?!). More recently, Alice Munro won in 2013 for mastering the contemporary short story, and Svetlana Alexievich won in 2015 for her “polyphonic writings”, which the committee called a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”. But, of course, all of those came before this year’s scandal

Miles Franklin Award

It’s not just the international and American committees that overlook women for literary awards; we’ve got some problems at home, too. Domestically, women have historically been rather underrepresented in the Miles Franklin Award – which is kind of ironic, given that it is named for its creator, famed Australian writer Miles Franklin (who wrote My Brilliant Career, which I reviewed here). This disparity has led to the creation of the Stella Prize, which addresses the gender imbalance by specifically recognising the literary achievements of Australian women. It seems to be working, at least in some measure, because women are getting a bit more of a look-in with the Miles Franklin since the Stella Prize was introduced – Josephine Wilson won for Extinctions in 2017, Sofie Laguna for The Eye of the Sheep in 2015, and this year Michelle de Kretser for The Life To Come. Let’s hope that trend continues!




Man-Booker Prize

The Man-Booker Prize (often referred to simply as the Booker Prize, as it was formerly known) is awarded to the best English-language novel published in the U.K. each year. Traditionally, it was awarded only to authors from Commonwealth countries (plus Ireland and Zimbabwe), but a recent (controversial!) change saw it opened up to entrants from any country. Since 1969, 31 men and 16 women have won the prize – and, believe it or not, this is one of the better examples of gender equality in international literary awards. It’s not exactly a high bar, eh?

The first female winner of the Man-Booker was Bernice Rueben in 1970; she won for The Elected Member, a book about an amphetamine addict who sees silverfish everywhere (I’m not kidding). Arundhati Roy also won in 1997 for The God of Small Things, and literary darling Margaret Atwood won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. And this year, Anna Burns got the gong for Milkman (which is already on The Next List!). But I’m still pretty mad that Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (my review here) lost out to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North in 2014, though…

National Book Award

This is probably the only award that has comparable brand-recognition as the Pulitzer in the U.S., though it’s perhaps not as recognisable in the rest of the world. The National Book Award(s) are awarded annually to American authors, across multiple categories. The selection panels can arrive at a winner using any criteria they deem fit, as long as it falls within the guidelines set forth by the National Book Foundation. The NBAs were established in 1936, suspended briefly during the Second World War, and continued from 1950. In the awards’ history, female winners have included Joyce Carol Oates in 1970 (for Them), Ursula K LeGuin in 1973 (for The Farthest Shore), Alice Walker in 1983 (for The Color Purple), E. Annie Proulx in 1993 (for The Shipping News), and Patti Smith in 2010 (for Just Kids). This is an impressive list, but once again, women represent only 25% of the National Book Awards winners overall.


Important Note: the stats on how many of these women are women of colour aren’t readily available (funny that, eh?), but I’m going to hazard a guess that it is far too few… and the same definitely goes for trans and queer women.

Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that women are the primary consumers (and writers!) of fiction, and yet they win proportionately very few literary awards? It’s certainly not because they’re not talented, or keep writing only fluffy “chick-lit” (though that term makes me want to vomit). Looking over this list, it’s plain to see that they’ve got the writing chops for literary fiction. The only logical conclusion is that female writers just aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and the ripple effects of this is huge: women writers receive less money, less exposure, and fewer opportunities to develop and distribute their art (which means that even fewer women are enticed into the creative industries to begin with – you’ve got to see it to be it, after all!).

How do we fix this? Well, we need to exert our consumer pressure on the selection panels for starters (the director of the National Book Awards has given us a head start on that). We need to make a point of spending our precious consumer dollars on those women who do win now and then. We need to vote for politicians that fund and support women in the arts, and we need to support corporates that chip in, too. Plus, we need to share articles like this one far and wide, of course πŸ˜‰ to bring attention to the issue. Have you got any other ideas? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


 

10 Brilliant Writers To Follow On Twitter

I think one of the greatest tragedies of our time is that Oscar Wilde never had Twitter. I realise that makes me sound like the most millennial millennial that ever millennial-ed, but seriously! Take a look over his body of work (I reviewed The Picture of Dorian Gray this week, by the way), and you’ll quickly realise that his Twitter feed would have been absolute fire. The good news is that today’s writers do have Twitter, and I can tell you right now that they would have made him proud! Whether you’ve been Tweeting for years or you’re just now setting up your account, here’s my list of 10 brilliant writers to follow on Twitter.

10 Brilliant Writers to Follow on Twitter - grey lettering overlaid on blue image of a hand holding a phone with the Twitter log in screen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing)

If you haven’t seen copies of Little Fires Everywhere… well, everywhere, then you haven’t been paying attention. Celeste Ng’s success is well-deserved, of course, but her Twitter feed is criminally underrated. To start with, her handle is hilarious – she’s not afraid to make fun of herself and the world around her.

J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling)

I don’t care if you like Harry Potter or not, J.K. Rowling’s Twitter is a must-read. She comments on everything – from Harry Potter fan theories to politics to Eurovision – and uses the platform to make direct contact with her fans. She is a Twitter master!

Amna Saleem (@AGlasgowGirl)

I have been following Amna Saleem for quite a while, and I love finding her Tweets in my timeline, like hilarious hidden treasures. She is a comedy writer from Scotland, and her insights on race, culture, and family life will make you weep (appreciatively).


Jennifer Down (@jenniferdown)

I’m not going to lie, my fangirling over Jennifer Down is almost creepy. I got to meet her at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and it was pretty much the highlight of my year. Of course, she’s a brilliant writer (buy her incredible books here and here!), but her Twitter feed is all killer, no filler. I have literally lol’d on pretty much a daily basis ever since I followed her, she is just so damn relateable. Do yourself a favour…

Kaz Cooke (@reallykazcooke)

Kaz Cooke wrote basically the only pregnancy book worth reading (Up The Duff), and her feed is full of cartoons, hot takes, and the best of Aussie baby-boomer real talk.

Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani)

You might not have expected to see someone like Behrouz Boochani on this list, but his might just be the most important account here. Behrouz Boochani is a novelist, documentary filmmaker, and journalist, currently detained on Manus Island by the Australian government for the “crime” of seeking asylum in Australia. His Tweets are eye-opening, terrifying, and motivating. It is the best inside account we have of what is being done to asylum seekers in our name…




Roxane Gay (@rgay)

Roxane Gay just goes from strength to strength – Bad Feminist, then Hunger, then Difficult Women… and her Twitter feed is full of the same brilliance. But, if I’m being really honest, the main reason I follow Roxane Gay is right there in her bio: “If you clap, I clap back”. She promises, and she delivers. Her clap-backs are epic! I have no idea where she finds the emotional wherewithal, but damn, I’m here for it!


Rebecca Slater (@slatterbrain)

Rebecca Slater wrote my favourite piece of 2018, it is hands-down one of the best things I’ve ever read, and she is the one to fucking watch, I’m telling you! Get all over her Twitter right now, so you can say you followed her when…

Maxine Beneba Clarke (@slamup)

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Twitter feed covers just about everything of interest (to me): politics, race, haters, poetry, prose, literacy, journalism, real-talk, and – most of all – hella relateable comedy. Come for the mind that brought you The Hate Race, and stay for excerpts from conversations with children that will have you howling.

Quinn Eades (@quinn_writes)

I first discovered Quinn when he wrote what I considered to be the definitive series of essays on the Australian marriage equality vote of 2017, and I’ve been following his work ever since. His poetry is unflinching and beautiful, his book is incredible, and his Twitter feed is everything queer, sarcastic, and fantastic.




Honourable mentions, of course, to @LeeLinChinSBS and @cher – not technically authors, but two Tweeters that make the platform worthwhile, as far as I’m concerned. If either of them ever leave Twitter, I will follow them in protest. And, well, there’s me! @shereestrange


Do you have any other favourite writers on Twitter? Make sure to drop their handles below for me (or share the love over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read

Picking which book you’re going to read next is a tricky business. I don’t know anyone with a 100% success rate. Even if you know exactly what you like, what you’re in the mood for, what gets your motor running, now and then you’re bound to fall victim to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. Still, forewarned is forearmed, and if you can recognise the mistake you’re about to make, you might just be able to squeeze your way around it. Here are the top five mistakes you make when picking your next read (and how to avoid them!).

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read (and how to avoid them!) - text overlaid on an image of library shelves stacked with books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picking A Best-Seller

It’s human nature to find yourself swayed by the “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLER” text you see emblazoned across a cover in an airport bookstore. It’s the power of social proof: when you know that a whole bunch of other people really loved something, your brain tricks you into thinking that you’ll love it too. That’s why publishers assign so much weight to best-seller rankings, and exactly why you shouldn’t! Just because a book sold a bunch a copies in really short period of time, that doesn’t mean it’s worth your money and attention.

How to avoid this mistake? Well, firstly, you should check out my list of best-sellers to avoid πŸ˜‰ Secondly, make a rule for yourself that you’ll check out the blurb and look up the author before you think about where it ranked. Hopefully, that should be enough to give your brain a healthy dose of skepticism that will steer you in the right direction.

Picking A Book Recommended By A Friend

I fell victim to this mistake myself, just this week! I read and reviewed The Golden Bowl; of course, it was on The List, so I was going to read it regardless, but I’d really hyped it up in my mind because a dear friend highly recommended it. Of course, it turned out to be an absolute stinker (in fact, I’d go as far as to say it was my least favourite of all the books I’ve read so far).

See, friends aren’t always the best gauge of what you’ll love when it comes to books. More often than not, you’ll find that they recommend books that they like, without much consideration as to what you’ll enjoy.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid this one at all. It might be a book that they’ve actually written, or one that’s moved them at a troubled time in their lives, and your obligation as a friend has to override your personal enjoyment of the book – fair enough. But otherwise, thank your friend politely, and tell them you’ll get to it someday; meanwhile, focus on book recommendations from people that you know share your tastes. That’s not always someone you know. It might be a book blogger (ahem!), or someone else that has tastes that align really closely with your own preferences. Either way, it’s a much better litmus test than what your coffee buddy recently read for their book club.


Picking Award Winners

Sure, literary awards can tell you a lot about the artistic merit of a book. I mean, a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer has a certain cachet, after all! But I’m going to say the thing that no one’s supposed to say: just because a book is “good” doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it.

I don’t know why we’re so afraid to admit this! Sometimes, a bunch of really smart people say a book is good, and we just don’t agree with them. Sometimes, an award winner just isn’t worth our time. That’s okay!

To avoid this mistake when picking your next read, try looking instead at books that have won awards for your preferred genre – there are sci-fi awards, and fantasy awards, and romance awards, and awards for just about every other genre you can imagine. That’s a much better indication of whether you’ll enjoy a book than a generic literary prize. Also maybe try looking for awards offered in formats that you know work for you (short stories, experimental fiction, etc.). You could also try looking at authors that have won multiple awards across their body of work. Better yet, you can chuck the nominee lists in the bin altogether, and just go with your instincts!

Picking Classics (Just Because They’re Classics)

I know, it’s kind of ironic that I’m calling this out as a mistake, given that I’ve created a whole blog project around reviewing the classics… however, I would argue that this makes me uniquely qualified to comment on this particular mistake you make when picking your next read. There are plenty of books that I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins purely because I “should”, and I can tell you right now that it is a huge mistake to choose a book on that basis alone.

Much like winning an award, standing the test of time is no guarantee that a book is going to be one that you’ll enjoy, or even one that’s worth your time and money. I think it’s great to read the classics and everyone should give it a go, but try looking for one that will engage you! Look at the blurbs and reviews online, keep an eye out for ones that sound similar to contemporary reads that you’ve enjoyed, and maybe look out for characters, plots and time periods that interest you.




Picking A Book Because You Liked The Movie

At the risk of stating the obvious, I gotta say it: films and books are completely different formats. How you experience a story changes dramatically between the page and the screen, even if the plot and the characters are exactly the same. I know that the generally-accepted wisdom says to read the book before you see the movie, but sometimes it happens the other way around; surely it makes sense to go back and read the book anyway, right? Wrong!

Take, for instance, my own feelings about The Hunger Games. I quite enjoyed the films, but I felt kind of “meh” about the original book. This comes down to the narration, of all things. See, the Hunger Games books were narrated in the first person, with all the “oh, who do I love? woe is me!” internal monologue of the teenage girl protagonist. The movies, however, by their very nature, removed that element from the story, making it much more enjoyable and engaging for me.

The trick here is simply to reject all the pressure to “read the book” – you should free to enjoy the movie or television adaptation for what it is, safe in the knowledge that the book might just fall short of the high standard that’s been set. And I know this isn’t a popular opinion about booklovers, but sometimes the movie adaptations don’t suck!


Have you made any huge mistakes in picking your next read? Did you ever think you’d really like a book for one of these reasons, and end up hating it? Warn me off it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Best TED Talks on Books and Reading

If you’re a living human with an internet connection in the 21st century, chances are you’ve fallen down a rabbit-hole of TED talks at least once. They’re available online, for free, at the click of a button, and there are hundred of talks on every imaginable subject. Having an interest in books and literature, as I (clearly) do, my favourite TED talks often focus on reading and the role of books in the modern world. To save you many hours, I’ve put together a list of the best TED talks on books and reading, so you can watch them at your leisure…

Chip Kidd: Designing Books Is No Laughing Matter. OK, It Is.

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Book designer Chip Kidd gives (hilarious!) insights into the thought process behind designing Alfred A Knopf’s most iconic book covers.

Anne Lamott: 12 Truths I Learned From Life And Writing

 

I have watched Anne Lamott’s TED talk on life and writing at least half a dozen times, and quoted it at least a hundred. She gives us gems like: “if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have treated you better!”. Well worth a watch, for writers and non-writers alike.

Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel: What We Learned From 5 Million Books

 

It turns out, the all-knowing all-encompassing Google has digitised 5 million books – that’s over 500 billion words – and these two smarty pants-es have used the data (everything from date of publication to frequency of phrases appearing over time) to give us incredible insights into humanity, culture, and change.

Ann Morgan: My Year Reading A Book From Every Country In The World

 

I related, on a deep, deep level, to this talk from Ann Morgan. She identified a marked lack of diversity on her bookshelves, and set about reading a book from every country in the world. It sounds like a reasonable-enough goal, but she only gave herself a year to do it, and she’s monolingual – meaning she had to go to extreme lengths to find works translated into English. This is a fantastic TED talk that highlights both the importance of diversity and the role of translators in the publishing world.

Parul Sehgal: An Ode to Envy

 

This one might seem out of place, but watch it and you’ll see why I’ve included it here. Not only does Parul Sehgal delve into the nature of jealousy, but she examines it through the lens of literature… and, come to that, she examines literature through the lens of jealousy. Plus, there’s some awesome for-dummies Proust analysis thrown into the bargain.

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger Of A Single Story

 

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk is probably more focused on storytelling and representation than books and reading per se, but she’s a novelist, so I say it counts! She makes (what should be) a very obvious point about the great danger of “single stories”, and the importance of representation and balance in storytelling and narrative. This is one to make you think about how much you don’t know about what you don’t know.

Brian Dettmer: Old Books Reborn As Intricate Art

 

You might have seen a viral video floating around, about old books made into works of art – this is that guy! Brian Dettmer takes physical books (most often old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and out-of-date medical texts) and carves away at them to create sculptures. He calls it “remixing books”. I still can’t quite wrap my head around how he does it, but the end result is phenomenal either way!

Mac Barnett: Why A Good Book Is A Secret Door

 

And, to end on a light (but touching!) note, as all good TED talks do, this one comes from children’s author Mac Barnett. He talks about the incredible capacity of children to accept things as simultaneously real and make-believe (in a way that is far more articulate and easy-to-understand than I can replicate). Plus, he’s got a few cute anecdotes about his readers, and no one can resist those, right?

Honourable mention to the amazing TED talk that I once saw about the importance of reading aloud to children and the impact that this can have on future literacy… that I can’t find anywhere on the TED website! Argh! If you come across it, please link me to it in the comments below!

Bonus question: do you have a favourite bookish TED talk? Share it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


 

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful

If you can’t handle rejection, then writing is definitely not your game. It takes a certain kind of resilience to persist with your work when everyone you send it to rejects it outright. This week, I reviewed The Martian; Andy Weir was rejected by so many literary agents that he took his destiny into his own hands and self-published his book, making it available (for free!) through his website. Now, just a few years later, he’s a best-selling author, with a film adaptation starring Matt Damon that has taken over $600 million at the box office. This is the type of “overnight success” story that was years in the making, and gives hope to struggling writers everywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the other brave souls that persisted with their rejected books and went on to be ridiculously successful.

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Carrie – Stephen King

Stephen King – now a household name – received thirty rejections from publishers for his first offering, Carrie. One rejection letter read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King was so disheartened, he reportedly threw the manuscript in the bin… but his wife, the story goes, fished it back out and harangued him into giving it another go. Shortly after, King received a telegram that read: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

King went on to sell the paperback rights for $40,000, and Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year… and thus launched one of the most successful literary careers of our time. It just goes to show!

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova sent out the manuscript for Still Alice about 100 times, by her own calculation, and often she didn’t even receive the validation of an actual rejection – many literary agents just didn’t reply to her at all. Fed up, she self-published, and eventually attracted the attention of Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Still Alice hit the New York Times best-seller list, and stayed there for forty weeks. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her starring role in the film adaptation. Genova is laughing all the way to the bank! (Read my full review of Still Alice here!)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

We don’t know exactly how many times The Great Gatsby was rejected by publishers, but we do know that one called it “an absurd story”, and another (bafflingly) suggested that he’d “have a decent book if [he’d] get rid of that Gatsby character”. When publishers are saying that your titular character needs to get in the bin, you’d be forgiven for thinking a career change might be in order!

Still, Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to give up. Today, The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies, been translated into 42 languages, and adapted to six successful films… not to mention being the subject of countless high-school book reports! (Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here!)

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle has spoken publicly about the rejections (26, count ’em!) that she received for A Wrinkle In Time. Apparently, publishers thought that the children’s book dealt “too overtly” with the problem of evil, and that it would be “too difficult” for the juvenile target market. She was 40 years old by the time a publisher finally gave her a shot. A Wrinkle In Time ended up winning the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, as well as selling over eight million copies. It was adapted for television in 2001, and in film earlier this year.



Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

Speaking of children’s books, J.K. Rowling has to have the best told-you-so rejection story of all time! Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually found a literary agent relatively quickly – and it was a ray of hope for Rowling, who had written the story sitting in Edinburgh cafes while she and her daughter lived on public benefits. But despite the agent’s best efforts, the first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times back-to-back. A last-ditch effort saw them send it to an editor at Bloomsbury – and he might never have taken it on if his eight-year-old daughter hadn’t found the first chapters in his office, and nagged him for a copy of the book so that she could read it all. The rest, as they say…

… actually, that’s not all! Despite his daughter’s enthusiasm, the Bloomsbury editor recommended that Rowling “get a day job”, because the sales of Harry Potter were unlikely to pay the bills. She received an advance of just Β£1,500. That was in 1996; now, 22 years later, the books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide, broken records for fastest-selling books in history, and the film adaptations have grossed over seven billion dollars. Rowling’s “day job” is now roasting trolls on Twitter.

That’s not to say her journey with rejection was over. She penned The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel for adults, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and found herself once again on the receiving end of a bunch of rejection letters. Most editors seemed to think it was “good”, but the market too saturated to take a risk on an “unknown”. When it did get picked up, The Cuckoo’s Calling only sold about 500 copies domestically… until the true identity of the author was revealed, propelling it to the top of the amazon.co.uk best-seller list overnight. Rowling gets the last laugh, once again!

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A popular myth suggests that Joseph Heller decided to name his satirical WWII novel after the twenty-two rejections he received from publishers. That’s not quite true, but it’s accurate in one respect – Heller did, indeed, cop twenty-two rejection letters, one of which actually said: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Ouch!

Heller remained bitter about Catch-22’s reception for the rest of his life, because the zingers didn’t stop once it was accepted for publication. A review in The New Yorker said that Catch-22 “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. What remains is a debris of sour jokes.” Never mind that it went on to sell over ten million copies… I guess you can’t please everyone! (Read my full review of Catch-22 here!)

The Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

William Golding copped a respectable twenty rejections for The Lord Of The Flies. One called it “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” I’m sure there’s plenty of high-school students, forced to read it for English classes, that would agree, but that’s beside the point: the book has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide, it has been adapted into four different films, and it is frequently features on lists of the best books ever written.


Dubliners – James Joyce

Now, I can’t say I blame publishers for taking their time to warm up to James Joyce’s writing. He is, after all, notoriously difficult to read… but it would seem that they more often took issue with his “obscenity” than with his obfuscating prose. He received twenty-two rejections for Dubliners over the course of nine years, but he stuck to his guns. He wrote to one editor (in response to charges of obscenity): “I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties, and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art.” (Oh, yeah, he was also super humble.)

When a publisher did eventually take the bait, his troubles weren’t over. They told him that he wouldn’t receive any royalties for his work unless it sold more than 500 copies. It sold 379 in the first year – Joyce having failed to game the system, even though he bought 120 copies himself. In the vein of that old unappreciated-in-his-time cliche, Joyce is now one of the most influential and regarded writers of the 20th century.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

It’s equally unsurprising that Nabokov had a hard time finding a publisher for Lolita; after all, it’s a dark and disturbing story of obsessive love, kidnapping, and sexual abuse. One editor said of the manuscript: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (Emphasis mine – I added it because damn, that’s cold!)

Lolita was passed over at least five times by major publishers, forcing Nabokov and his agents to look outside the U.S. for publishing partners. Eventually, it was published (in 1955, not even a decade into that thousand years the editor demanded), and went on to sell over 55 million copies. It turns out when revolting stories are beautifully written, the public can forgive a little nausea. πŸ˜‰

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

I’ve saved the best for last: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance literally holds the record (the Guinness Book of World Records record, to be precise) for the most-often rejected best-seller: knocked back 121 times. Can you imagine the kind of determination it takes to persist through that storm of rejection?

The editor that eventually accepted the story was quite melodramatic about it all: “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for,” he said, and “the book is brilliant beyond belief… it is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.” So, it would seem that wading through that sea of rejections was worth it! I’m sure Pirsig is eternally grateful to have finally found an editor that believes in his work that way.

 

Imagine what kind of world we’d have without Harry Potter, or Lolita, or any of the other book on this list, if those publishers had had their way! Do you have a favourite author rejection story? Tell it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend heavy non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. I took a crack at it here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. But that’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention. Barack Obama has recommended her later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protΓ©gΓ©. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work.

Ulysses – James Joyce

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it comes highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence, so maybe I’m going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Oates does concede that it’s “not easy”, but apparently every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort – so there’s some hope yet!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of being called The Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –Β  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class. And, not least of all by any means, I recommend it too




The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. I didn’t mind it either, check out my review here πŸ˜‰

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women, and I figure if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me! American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. And J.K. Rowling lists Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, as her favourite character in literature:

“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

– J.K. Rowling

Bonus: as much as Rowling loved Jo March, she actually lists Jane Austen’s Emma as her favourite book of all time (check out my full review here), and says she has read it at least twenty times.


1984 – George Orwell

I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!



What do you think of these book recommendations? Have these brilliant minds missed any of your special favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

How To Remember What You Read

It’s all well and good to read a lot of books. You flip those pages every night before bed, at every bus stop, and on every lunch break. You watch your bookshelf pile up with tomes you’ve torn through in record time. But what good is all that effort if you don’t remember what you read?

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

All respect to Ralphie, but remembering what you read is where it’s at. A friend of mine Tweeted the other day that they got half-way through reading a book and realised they had already read it – and that ain’t good! If you’re in the same boat, you’re in luck, because this happens to be my specialty. See, in a former life, I was a psychology graduate (with first class honours, thank you very much!). When I started thinking about what I could tell my friend on how to remember what you read, my brain instantly whirred into cognitive psychology mode, throwing up theories of memory processing and forgetting curves. The fact that I remember any of that stuff – stuff I read in textbooks over five years ago – should be the proof in this bloggy pudding. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical on you – here are my best, practical tips on how to remember what you read.

How To Remember What You Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Get Familiar

Before you even open a book, you should get familiar with what you’re about to read. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. If you’re about to read the memoir of a prominent member of the French Resistance, you probably want to have some background knowledge on WWII. Likewise, if you’re reading a fictional story set in 19th century London, you’ll understand (and therefore remember) a lot more of what’s going on if you’ve got some basic background knowledge to start off with.

Think of this strategy like fishing with a net: your prior knowledge is the 'net' in your memory, and bits of information from the book are the 'fish'. Without a net, they swim right past you, but if you've got a good strong net in place, you're going to catch (remember) a lot of stuff.Click To Tweet

It doesn’t have to be a long and drawn-out research process. Usually, just reading the introduction is enough – it will usually give you some kind of political and socio-economic context for a work of fiction, or a background on the author and the subject matter for non-fiction. If you want to go a little deeper, you’ve probably got a device in your pocket (or maybe you’re holding it in front of your face right now!) that can connect you to literally everything you might need to know about that book. So, really, it’s not that hard! πŸ˜‰

I really should have done this myself when I read A Passage To India. There was no introduction in my edition, but I forged ahead without taking the time to research any further, and I ended up having to stop and Google things constantly as I was reading.

Focus!

The idea of remaining actively engaged in a single pursuit for any extended period of time is kind of a joke in the age of instant notifications and the 24-hour news cycle. Believe me when I say, though, that you’ll notice a huge difference in how you remember what you read if you make an effort. Don’t have the TV on “in the background”, don’t check your phone, don’t cook dinner with one hand and hold your book with the other (besides being bad for memory, that’s just dangerous!). Even if you can only give 20 minutes of focused attention per day, or 10 minutes, or 3 precious minutes before your kids wake up, do it. Take whatever time you can to focus wholly and solely on what you’re reading.

In fact, it’s probably better to do it that way. Even without modern distractions, the average human brain has trouble staying completely focused for long stretches, but finds it relatively easy to maintain focus for shorter periods of time. Find whatever time period is optimal for you, and commit to using it for focused reading every day.

Sure, it might take you months to get through a book if you’re reading it in ten-minute bursts, but so what? It’s a huge mistake to get all hung up on reading “fast”. Burning through a book quickly is actually detrimental to your recall. When you space out your reading – a few chapters here, a few chapters there – you force your brain to shift the new information from working memory to long-term storage (because you’re going to need it later when you pick it up again). It’ll stick around in long-term storage for a while, especially seeing as you’re rehearsing the memory every time you go to knock out a few more pages. If you read the entire book in a single sitting, your brain doesn’t need to store as much information – after all, you’re not going to need to remember where to pick it up again, are you? Your brain will abandon all that lovely gooey information in favour of something more valuable that it will actually need later. So, read in short, focused bursts, and you’ll find you retain a lot more.


Think About What You’re Reading

I know, I know, this sounds laughably obvious, but hear me out! You’d be surprised at how many of us read passively, not really thinking about what we’re taking in and just letting the words wash over us. That can feel really good (like mindlessly binge-watching 22 episodes of a ’90s sitcom), but it’s not great if you’ve set a goal of remembering what you read.

So, what’s the easiest way to engage your brain? Challenge it! Find ways to put it to work. Your brain is like a border collie: it wants work to do, and if you don’t give it any, it’s going to run off and find something else to play with (or take a nap in the sun).

Try these tricks to get your brain into gear as you’re reading:

  • Ask yourself questions about what you’re reading as you go. “Why would the protagonist do that? Is it what I would do if I were in her shoes? What do I like about the way this author writes? What’s the point that the author is trying to get across here?” It sounds really basic, but pausing after every few pages and posing a question like this to yourself will force your brain to actively engage with the content to formulate an answer, and that’s, like, nine-tenths of the effort getting it to store the information for recall later.
  • Pause and visualise a scene or a character. Imagine what they look like, what they sound like, and make the whole thing as vivid as possible using the details that the author has given you.
  • Link what you’re reading to things that you already know. That could mean putting the background knowledge to use, or it could simply mean finding parallels between the book and your life experience. Say the author mentions someone’s birthday – see if you can figure out a way to remember that (maybe it’s the same day as your wedding anniversary, or a week before a major public holiday).
  • Stop at the end of each section or chapter, and try to paraphrase what you’ve just read to yourself. What happened? What did the author explain? What new information came to light? What do you need to remember?

Bonus: these tips won’t just help you remember what you read, they’ll also help you understand and apply what you read, so it’s a win-win-win!

Take Notes

For me, this is the most crucial step in remembering what I read. I’m constantly pausing to scribble something down – a great line, a thought I’ve had about a character, something interesting the author has done with perspective… In fact, it was these notebooks full of scribbles that gave rise to Keeping Up With The Penguins! πŸ˜‰

There are different schools of thought as to whether it’s “okay” (or even optimal) to write in the books themselves – notes in the margins, highlighting or underlining the text, etc. At the end of the day, whether you choose to write in your books is between you and whatever God you believe in. I’m from the school that says writing in books is sacrilegious, and I will never, ever do it as long as I live. That’s why I always have a notebook on me when I’m reading. I never write essays or anything particularly long-winded – it’s mostly bullet-points and diagrams, sometimes a paragraph or two if I’m really moved by what I’m reading.




The most important thing about taking notes is that you take them, regardless of how or where. Find a method that works for you, one that you’re likely to stick with. It might sound like a chore, but if your goal is remembering what you read, this is probably the best thing you can do – writing information down helps you to remember it, whatever your learning style, whatever you’re reading. Plus, you’ll have the notes to refer back to later if the memory doesn’t stick!

Read Out Loud

If “thinking about the book you’re reading” sounded too obvious, then this one undoubtedly sounds too silly.Β  I mean, what kind of loon reads out loud to themselves, right? Loons that want to remember what they read, that’s who!

Reading out loud gives your brain additional ways to code and retain the information. In addition to remembering reading the words visually, you have the opportunity to remember hearing them, and producing them with your own speech. This is particularly important if you’re an auditory learner (who learns best by listening, rather than by reading), but it will be helpful for anyone. There are a number of other benefits, too: for instance, if you tend to read for speed, reading out loud forces you to slow down and really think about what’s in front of you.

You get bonus points if you re-read and/or repeat crucial parts of books this way. I don’t think it will come as any great surprise that repetition is great for strengthening memory. If there are particular parts of the book that you really need to lock in your mind-safe, try reading them once and taking notes as you go, then going back later and reading the relevant parts out loud to yourself.

Teach Someone Else (Preferably, A Toddler)

There are about a dozen different sayings and quotes about this, and they all boil down to the same thing: you’ll understand and remember something better if you teach it to someone else. That’s because your experiential memory is the strongest kind there is (you’re more likely to remember something you experience than something you read), so you should really be taking advantage of that.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman’s technique for remembering what you read included this vital step. The “Feynman Technique” (creative name, eh?) includes choosing and learning about a concept, then doing your best to explain it to a toddler. That will help you identify any gaps in your own understanding, at which point you can return to your materials and review them until you’re ready to try again. Clearly, it worked for him!

The whole idea of explaining it to a toddler, rather than an adult, is that it forces you to condense your learning and simplify the concepts, ensuring that you truly understand what it is that you’re passing on rather than just regurgitating fancy words. If you can’t explain it to a toddler, you probably don’t understand it well.

If you don’t have a toddler on hand, that’s okay – you can still pass on your new-found wisdom. Participate in a book club, or talk to family and friends who have read the book (or comment on a blog… ahem!). Whatever you choose, the very act of discussing the content with someone else gives your brain all the more opportunity to strengthen the memories by associating them with other things (the conversation you have and your experience of it). The more connections your brain makes between the content and your experiences, the stronger your memory and the longer it will last.




Finally, Choose Wisely

Perhaps this should have come first, but I think it’s a good note to end on: choose the right book. You’re going to have a much better shot at remembering something you find interesting and entertaining than you will something that bores you to tears. Make sure you have a clear idea of why you’re reading the book (for fun, for work, for curiosity’s sake), and why you want to remember what you read (to apply it at work, to ace your exam, to improve your own writing). If you’re just reading a book so that you can say that you did, or because “everyone else is reading it”, you probably have no personal stake in it at all. Your chances of remembering it in great detail won’t be good. Move on to another book – one that’s more suited to your tastes and circumstances and needs. You’ll find that memory comes much easier!

The quality of your reading matters infinitely more than the quantity of your reading. As I said in the beginning, it’s all well and good to be the fastest reader in the world… but what are you actually getting out of those 10 books per week? Far better to take your time and really immerse yourself in a book that you love, and get everything out of it that you can, don’t you think? When you do that, and embed some really strong memories of what you read, you get to carry it with you for the rest of your life.


How’s your book recall? Do you use any of these strategies? Do you have any other tips? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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