Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 4)

Ridiculous (Real!) Reasons That Your Favourite Books Have Been Banned

At the end of this month, we’ll be celebrating Banned Books Week (23-29 September), an annual event promoting free and open access to literature. According to the official website, over 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982 (a “challenge” being an attempt to ban or restrict materials, brought by an individual or group, on the basis of content). The idea of a whole week dedicated to unorthodox and unpopular literature originated in the U.S. through the American Library Association, but it has gathered steam and spread worldwide. Banned Books Week draws international attention to the very real dangers posed by censorship – be it at the hands of schools, states, or federal governments.

Personally, I love banned books. In fact, it would seem that the majority of the books on The List have been banned, challenged, or censored at some point in history, somewhere in the world. At least 20 of them appear in the American Library Association’s top 100 lists of banned books over the past two decades. What I find most disturbing is the number of books that have been challenged because they contain diverse content; of the top ten most frequently challenged books in 2015, for instance, nine of them (quick maths: that’s 90%) featured or were written by people of colour, LGBTI people, and/or people with disabilities. Why are we so quick to challenge inclusive content from groups that are already marginalised in so many other respects?

Well, my favourite way to confront things that I don’t like is to laugh at them (of course!). So, let’s all have a chuckle at some of the most ridiculous (real!) reasons that books have been banned, challenged, or censored.

Ridiculous Real Reasons That Books Have Been Banned - Keeping Up With The Penguins

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Banned in Concord, Massachusetts (1885)
Reason Given: It is “trash and suitable only for the slums”

It was an auspicious start to a long and illustrious lifetime of bans and challenges for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Right up to the present day, it has been challenged repeatedly on the groups of racial insensitivity, perpetuation of racism, use of racial stereotypes, and coarse language. The fact that it accurately reflects the treatment and lived experiences of people of colour in 19th century America seems to have no bearing.

The Call of the Wild – Jack London

Burned in Nazi Germany (1920s-1930s)
Reason Given: It is “too radical”

A nice story about a man going for a walk with his dog (ha!) is clearly of great concern, and not only to the Nazis. The Call Of The Wild was also banned in Italy and Yugoslavia at different points, and has been challenged more recently in the U.S. for “age-inappropriateness” and concern about the author’s “pro-Socialist” views.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Censored in Irvine, California (1992)
Reason Given: Obscene language (“hell”, “damn”)

The irony here is mind-boggling! Surely no one ruling on these challenges has actually read the Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian science-fiction novel about a future world where books are illegal. A (somewhat oblivious) Californian school mandated the use of an expurgated version of the text in their classrooms, with all the “bad” words blacked out. Bradbury’s work has also been challenged and banned in other districts, usually citing its profanity, anti-government advocacy, opposition to religious belief, and – best of all – “questionable themes” (could they be any more vague?).

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Banned in Kern County, California (1939)
Reason Given: “Portrays Kern County, California in a negative light”

That’s right: Kern County is not only the setting of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but it was also the first place to ban it. The book was similarly banned in Ireland in the 1950s, and Turkish booksellers were charged for “spreading propaganda” when they sold the book in the 1970s. Grounds for other subsequent challenges include its profanity (“goddamn”), and sexual references.

Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman

Challenged in New York, New York (1882)
Reason Given: It’s “filthy”

A wonderful little organisation called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (sadly now disbanded) was not a huge fan of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. They pressured publisher James Osgood to cease distributing the work altogether, arguing that it violated “the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature”. When that failed (good on ya, Osgood!), the upstanding booksellers of New York took it upon themselves to advise their customers not to purchase the “filthy” book. I must say, if I received such a warning, I’d probably buy two copies.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Banned in Lindale, Texas (1996)
Reason Given: It “conflicted with community values”

Ah, that old chestnut! Which community values were contradicted exactly remains unclear, but Moby Dick definitely contradicted them, according to a school district in Lindale. Other books banned by the same school under that ruling include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and – the darling of Banned Books Week, mentioned above – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Check out my full review of the community-value-conflicting American classic here.




 

Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

Challenged (2015)
Reason Given: It is “poorly written”, and there are “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”

I shouldn’t play favourites, but as far as I’m concerned this is the best ridiculous reason for a book to be challenged, ever! I can understand perhaps thinking that the content of Fifty Shades of Grey is a little “adult” for a very young audience, but what a way to articulate that concern! The Malaysian government did a little better: they banned the entire trilogy that same year, for its “sadistic” material and its “threat to morality”.

*Note: the location of this particular challenge has not been made public. The wonderful team at the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom were kind enough to tell me why: librarians and other professionals who wish to seek support from their office, but fear reprimands or punishment at work for reporting instances of censorship, are welcome to submit their concerns confidentially. However, they also confirmed for me that this was, in fact, a legitimate challenge reported to their office in 2015.

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Challenged in North Carolina (1981)
Reason Given: It is “demoralising, in that it implies that a man is little more than an animal”

This reason for challenging Lord of the Flies is lifted directly from its very premise. Any kid writing a book report can tell you that Golding’s whole point was that man is not that different from the animals. Such logic isn’t stopping the censorship brigade, though! They’ve also challenged this book for its obscene language, violence, and – I swear, I’m not making this up – animal cruelty.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Banned in Hunan, China (1931)
Reason Given: It would be “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level”

Yep: anthropomorphised animals really freak out the Chinese government. They felt that Lewis Carroll’s charming children’s fantasy novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was an insult to humans, and would teach children “disastrous” things (i.e., that humans and animals are “on the same level”). Can you imagine?

The U.S. got on board the banning train in the ’60s, albeit for different reasons: they believed the mushroom and hookah imagery would lure kids into the drug culture. Then, in the ’90s, New Hampshire banned the book (again!) for promoting “sexual fantasies and masturbation”. ??? Even I don’t know how they got there… Seriously, read my full review here and see if you can figure it out.

All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

Challenged in Dallas, Texas (1974)
Reason Given: Depicting a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”

God knows, we can’t have young adults exposed to a depressing view of life in literature! Especially not when it reflects immoral situations! How else will they learn that the real world is all sunshine and rainbows, and everyone does the right thing always?! We can hardly blame the good people of Dallas, Texas for challenging All The King’s Men, really.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Removed from classrooms in Miller, Missouri (1980)
Reason Given: “It makes promiscuous sex look like fun”

Words fail me.


Honourable mentions must also go to: The Holy Bible (challenged for its “religious viewpoint”), The Witches by Roald Dahl (for “encouraging disobedience”), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (for “content dealing with menstrual cycles and feminine hygiene”, heaven forbid) and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (inexplicably challenged for “obscene language” only, when half the book is written in a nonsense language invented by the author and depicts some of the most graphic sexual violence and state-perpetrated violence that I have ever read – check out my full review for more details).

So, now that we’ve all had a good laugh, let’s get back to Banned Books Week. The battle against censorship is never won. Take some time out this month to read books that people tell you you “shouldn’t”. Soak up some dangerous ideas. Support an author who has been challenged or banned (buy their book, go to their talk, request their work at your local library). None of us have to like everything, but we should do everything we can to make sure that no one impinges on our right to read anything.

Have you come across a ridiculous reason that a book has been banned? What will you be reading to celebrate Banned Books Week? Let me know in the comments (or give it a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors

When we start talking about how our favourite writers write, I think all of us conjure up one of two mental pictures. We either imagine the disciplined, dedicated writer (like Stephen King) with his set schedule and his carefully-arranged study, or we think of the heavy-drinking night owl (see: Hunter S Thompson), who obliterates their body and mind but vomits out genius works of art at random. Authors certainly exist right across that spectrum, but it’s always more fun to read about the latter 😉 Here are some of the craziest writing methods of famous authors, the bizarre habits and creative processes that have produced amazing works of literature.

Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jack Kerouac & His Scroll

Jack Kerouac spent years scribbling down notes for On The Road in his various journals before he actually sat down at a typewriter and got on with it. He went from one extreme to another, though. He decided that having to stop for anything would be an unwelcome distraction in his creative process, so he procured a single 120-foot scroll of paper, and thus began typing his manuscript. His work poured forth, and he wrote the entire draft in what was effectively a single burst, barely stopping for food and water. When he was done, he just rolled it back up, and marched on down to his editor’s office. Of course, his sensible editor told Kerouac that he was out of his mind, and he’d need to type it up on normal pages in order for them to edit it – in response, Kerouac threw a tanty and stormed out.

Kerouac was also highly superstitious (about his writing, but also life in general). He tried out various rituals to get the creative juices flowing: writing only by candlelight, writing by a full moon, praying before sitting down to write, standing on his head (yes, really). Clearly, something worked, because he is now considered the darling of the Beat generation literary movement.

Maya Angelou & Her Hotel Room

Maya Angelou took Virginia Woolf’s maxim (that a woman needs a room of one’s own) to the next level. She rented a hotel room in her hometown by the month, and used it as her “study”. At 6:30AM each morning, she would head over there and spend the morning writing. She specifically requested that management remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles; she believed her “Big Mind” would sort out problems in her work if she kept her “Little Mind” occupied with something else.

Of course, she never actually slept there. She would leave around 2:00PM, run her errands, and then review the pages she’d written that day at home after dinner. She is cited as saying she’d inevitably scrap most of them, but keep the process up until she had about fifty good pages that she was happy with. And that’s how her work was born.


Aaron Sorkin & His Broken Nose

Granted, Aaron Sorkin isn’t an “author” in the same sense as everyone else on this list – he’s actually a screenwriter, the mind behind A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and The West Wing. Still, his process is definitely bonkers enough to warrant inclusion here!

“Writing never comes easy,” he once said. “The difference between Page 2 and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death.”

In 2011, Sorkin arrived at an Emmy event with a broken nose. When pressed by the media, he confessed that the injury was incurred as part of his writing process. It turns out, Sorkin workshops his dialogue… with himself, reading his lines out loud into a mirror. While working on a script, he became so enraged with his character’s situation that he head-butted the glass! He was probably on to something good, but… sheesh.

Victor Hugo & His Bare Arse

I’m not being funny: Victor Hugo literally wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the nude. He was working to an incredibly tight deadline in 1831, and found himself becoming distracted by, y’know, leaving the house all the time. So, what’s a writer to do?

Well, the obvious: Hugo bought himself a big bottle of ink, and asked his valet to confiscate all of his clothes. You can’t go out and have a good time and miss your deadline if you’ve got nothing to wear! Hugo fought off the cold by wrapping himself in a huge grey shawl, and set about writing out the manuscript, all the while in his birthday suit.

It’s unconventional, but you’ve got to give it to Hugo: it’s genius!




Kazuo Ishiguro & His “Crash”

This is perhaps the grown-up’s version of Kerouac’s scroll. It was 1987 when Kazuo Ishiguro convinced his wife to let him try something a little weird. No, not that! He convinced her to take on all of his housework and emotional labour (like wives have done for centuries before, but I digress), he completely cleared his calendar, and planned an entirely new approach to his book. He did nothing but write from 9:00AM-10:30PM, six days a week. He allowed himself an hour each day for lunch, and two for dinner (what a slacker!). He didn’t answer the phone once in this time, or even look at a piece of mail. His plan was to reach a mental state in which his “fictional world was more real to him than the actual one”. Apparently it worked, because this process produced The Remains of the Day. The first draft took him four weeks, writing free-hand on his writing slope.

In fact, Ishiguro still writes all of his first drafts on that writing slope. When the time comes to type them up, he uses a computer that dates back to 1996 – it’s not connected to the Internet. Neither of these habits are particularly kooky. What really disturbed me was reading Ishiguro quoted in an interview as saying that, while he was working on The Buried Giant, he didn’t watch a single episode of Game of Thrones. Apparently, he wanted to remain focused on his own fictional world, and he was worried that taking an hour to watch an HBO series once a week would “tamper with the world that he set up”. It’s all well and good to sacrifice for your art, but surely there are limits to what a human being can endure! 😉

James Joyce & His Crayons

For anyone who has read James Joyce’s work, it won’t come as any surprise to see him included in this list. He wrote one of the most notoriously unreadable novels in the history of English literature (Finnegans Wake); it took him seventeen years to complete, and every sentence is so oblique that most people need a companion guide to read alongside it. (I’m not game enough to take it on just yet – Ulysses is on The List, but I’m so apprehensive that I’ll probably leave it until last.)

Why seventeen years? Well, firstly, Joyce considered hammering out two whole sentences to be a “good day’s work”, so he wasn’t the most prolific guy. Secondly, he was working at a pretty serious disadvantage: he was almost blind. He was horribly near-sighted, and ended up developing iritis (a painful eye condition, the result of rheumatic fever). He had twenty-five eye surgeries in an attempt to improve his condition, with no luck. So, he took to writing with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat.

It sounds nuts, but there was actually method to his madness! The colourful writing implements were big enough and bright enough to help him see what he was writing. He also believed that the white coat reflected more light onto the page in front of him. As for laying on his stomach in bed, well: there probably aren’t many more comfortable ways to get your eyes as close to the page as possible. Maybe he wasn’t that crazy after all!


Friedrich Schiller & His Rotting Apples

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Friedrich Schiller’s mate, Goethe, has dobbed him in as having probably the craziest writing method of all time. See, Goethe stopped by Schiller’s house one night, and – finding that his friend was out and about – decided to wait, and have a snoop around.

He noticed a strange smell emanating from the bottom drawer of a desk, in the study where Schiller would work. Goethe leaned down, opened it, and found… a pile of rotting apples.

No joke: Schiller had deliberately stored a bunch in a drawer, and waited patiently for them to go off. He told his wife that the odor was “inspiring”, and he “could not live or work without it”. That woman deserves an actual medal, because what the actual fuck?! According to Goethe, the smell was so overpowering that it was enough to make you lightheaded. I’m not one to judge, but… Schiller was off his head.


Writers are hardly known for being well-adjusted and sensible, but this lot really take the cake. Have you heard about any other crazy writing methods of famous authors? Are you inspired to develop one of your own? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

What Do Your Bookshelves Say About You?

“If you go home with somebody and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.”

Chances are, you’ve heard this timeless piece of dating advice from John Waters, and maybe you’ve even put a few books on proud display to make yourself seem fuck-worthy. I would argue, though, that establishing whether a would-be lover has books is just one piece of the puzzle. You’d be amazed at what a stranger can tell about you by looking at your bookshelves. You might be super-organised, highly ambitious, deeply creative, easy-breezy – and someone can probably tell all of this (and more!) from what you’ve stuck on the flimsy particleboard slabs you bought at IKEA and assembled yourself. Think about it: what do your bookshelves say about you?

What Do Your Bookshelves Say About You? Keeping Up With The Penguins

Your Bookshelves Are: Alphabetised

Who You Are

You’ve got your shit together. You’re probably shaking your head and thinking I’m crazy, that you’re just as much a mess as the next person, but you’re wrong. You probably have a day-planner and remember people’s birthdays and everything. You absolutely excel at scheduled, orderly fun. You’ve got the patience for complex problem solving, so you probably give your friends great advice. You love stationery stores, and getting a good night’s sleep.

What You Read

You’ve probably got a pretty broad collection, but you read more non-fiction than most people. You’ve also probably got a stash of “inspirational guides” and “business manuals” (because you can’t bring yourself to call them self-help books). You might have found yourself wondering if you should implement the Dewey Decimal system. No one but you will notice or care that you’ve done it, but dammit it will feel good.

Your Bookshelves Are: Colour-Coordinated

Who You Are

Others might call you “adorable”, or “off with the pixies”, but you prefer to think of yourself as “creative” and “free-spirited”. You definitely own a few floaty skirts, and your Instagram feed looks like a rainbow full of glitter exploded over a unicorn. Your bookshelf system is maybe not as efficient as the alphabetiser’s, but you’ve got a great memory so you know where to find every single book. Plus, you don’t see any problem in having something pretty to look at.

What You Read

You’ve probably kept a few of your favourite books from childhood – Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books, or The Babysitters Club series, maybe. Your collection definitely includes all of the Harry Potter books, and at least one of the ancillary titles (Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, perhaps?). You’ve splurged at least once or twice on gorgeous Penguin cloth-bound covers, or similarly beautiful editions, and you display them proudly in your colourful booktopia.


Your Bookshelves Are: Alarmingly Cluttered

Who You Are

You have books stacked every which way: on top of one another, leaning against each other, and crammed into every nook and cranny. You are the polar opposite of the alphabetiser (you can hardly organise your weekend, let alone your life), and the colour-coordinator would cringe at your devil-may-care arrangement. You’ve been accused of being scatter-brained, you’re constantly late, and you frequently forget to respond to text messages. But you are also intensely loving, and great fun to have around.

What You Read

You buy more books than you could possibly read, but you could never bring yourself to part with any of them (unless you’re trading in your third copy of Pride & Prejudice to score a rare edition of My Brilliant Career, or something). You have no idea how big your collection actually is, but you love it and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

God only knows what you’re actually reading at the moment: it’s impossible to tell, because you’ve got shit piled everywhere. Your tastes vary so widely even you can’t tell what you like anymore.

Your Bookshelves Are: Clean and Minimalist

Who You Are

Your bookshelves have never been cluttered, not a day in your life – an alarmingly cluttered shelf would give you intense anxiety. You’re pretty frugal, mostly because you’re a firm believer that you can’t buy anything to make you whole. Your bookshelves are a decorative feature of your home, not a storage mechanism. You dust them (and every other surface) regularly, and you water the small potted plants you keep around your home religiously. You love a quiet glass of wine, when the meditation app on your phone just ain’t cutting it.

What You Read

You’re not a voracious reader per se, but you have a handful of favourites that you return to time and again. You’re probably subscribed to a bunch of periodicals online (you’d die without your daily updates from The New Yorker), and you listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. When you do splash some cash at a bookstore, you probably pick up a couple of gorgeous cook books, and/or some recent award-winning literary fiction.



Your Bookshelves Are: Stacks on the Floor

Who You Are

A close cousin of the alarmingly-cluttered reader, you refuse to invest in the bourgeoise notion of a “shelf”. The closest you get to a “system” is separating stacks into “read” and “unread”, but even that distinction is pretty vague. You probably dog-ear your pages, too. You’re definitely a night-owl, and generous to a fault. You make a pretty good show of being pessimistic and cynical, but deep down you’ve got a lot of love for people around you, and you really believe in yourself (though you’d never admit it, because it sounds so cliche).

What You Read

You buy your books second-hand, so you pick up whatever’s going. As such, your stacks could contain just about anything… but you can guarantee there’s at least a couple poetry collections, maybe some European philosophy, and definitely some sci-fi and/or dystopian fiction. You have very strong feelings about On The Road, one way or the other.

Your Bookshelves Are: On A Kindle

Who You Are

It’s hard to catch you Kindle readers in your natural habitat, enigmatic creatures that you are. You read on busses, on lunch breaks, in bed, and anywhere else the urge strikes. You’ve got a strong sense of who you are, and you’re not going to bow to social pressure when it comes to reading, or anything else. You’re not likely to be waylaid by sensory pleasures (like that “new book smell”): you’re practical, logical, and focused.

What You Read

You’ve picked a genre, and you’re sticking to it. Whether it’s fantasy, horror, romance, or crime, you know it inside and out, and you’re all across the new releases. You leave honest reviews on Amazon, and love nothing more than getting an advance reader copy from a hot new author.

Some Final Tips for Organising Your Bookshelves

Ultimately, regardless of what it might “say” about you, to your hot date or your mother-in-law or anyone else stopping by your abode, your organisational system needs to make sense to you. You might find it easiest to have everything in alphabetical order (this is particularly useful for really large collections), so all you need to do is scan your bookshelves for the author’s surname. Maybe there are books you reach for again and again – in which case, it might make more sense to have your favourites at easy-to-spot eye-level, while the others can languish on upper and lower shelves. Whatever you choose, you should leave a little extra room for new additions. No matter what you tell yourself, even if you’re not “really” a book-worm, you’re never “done” buying books. You don’t want to find yourself having to start all over again next time you get an Amazon delivery.

If you’re really worried about what your bookshelves say about you, think about this: diversity is almost always going to be the key. A well-rounded reading list usually means a well-rounded individual. Even if you haven’t got around to reading much outside of your usual genre or your favourite authors yet, shelves of books “to be read” can say a lot about your aspirations and goals. That still counts for something! In the end (unless you’re a professional bookstagrammer) how you organise the books isn’t as important as the fact that they’re there.

What do your bookshelves say about you? Do you recognise yourself as one of the readers on this list? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us your “type” over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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How To Avoid Best Sellers That Aren’t Worth Your Time

This week, I reviewed American Sniper – needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. More than anything, I was bewildered as to how such a terribly written book could become a “#1 Best Seller”, and I felt sad for everyone who picked up a copy thinking that meant it would be a terrific read. This got me to thinking: what makes a “best seller”? How can you avoid the best sellers that aren’t worth your time?

How To Avoid Best Sellers That Aren't Worth Your Time - Black and Red Text Overlaid on Image of Newspapers on a Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What Is A “Best Seller”?

The term “best seller” was first used in The Kansas Times & Star back in 1889, but the idea has been around basically as long as books have been mass-produced. The phrase is generally understood to indicate a book that has sold more than others over a given period (or is more frequently borrowed, don’t forget about your local library!). Lists of these “best sellers” are published by various newspapers, magazines, and book-stores, the most widely-recognised ones being Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, Amazon.com, and – of course – the New York Times (more on that one in a minute). Best seller lists are usually divided into categories – popular fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, and so on – to make sure you’re not comparing apples and oranges.

The most important thing to understand is that the term “best seller” is associated only with copies sold or borrowed, so it has nothing to do with the book has academic or literary merit. As such, it is used very loosely by book publicists and publishers. They know that a book with “best seller” printed on the cover will (funnily enough) sell more copies than a book that is advertised as simply being “really good”. That’s the power of social proof for ya!

How Are Best Sellers Calculated?

It depends on the list, who publishes it, and why. Usually, best seller lists rely on sales data over a specific period – maybe a week, a month, or a year. That’s a super-important factor, because the sales period is really the main determining factor in a book’s rank (or, indeed, whether a book appears at all). A classic book (like, say, Moby Dick) might sell way more books over a period of fifty years than a current book (like, say, Still Alice), but guess which one is going to make a best seller list calculated on a specific week of 2007? Plus, think about what happens to books the week that the movie adaptation is released. People see ads for the movie, decide to buy the book before they see it, and all of a sudden – for just one or two weeks – a book that is 5-10 years old (or older!) is back on top of the list. To put it another way: if best seller lists covered sales from all time, The Bible would be in the number one spot every week.


Another really important factor in determining whether a book is a “best seller” is the category into which it is placed. The New York Times famously created a separate “Children’s Books” list in 2001, because Harry Potter had dominated the first, second, and third places in their fiction list for so long. If the categories are really narrow and niche (“21st century female memoir”, “children’s books by Australian authors”, “Young Adult fantasy hardcovers”), a book doesn’t have to sell all that many copies to make it to the top. If, on the other hand, the categories are really broad (“fiction” and “non-fiction”), the book would have to go boonta to even get a look-in at the top ten.

What all this means is that, while the number of copies sold does “count” in calculating whether a book is a “best seller”, it’s not the only factor (and it’s definitely not the most important factor). There’s a tonne of other things that go into these calculations, too: whether the book is hardcover or paperback, whether its sales are wholesale to book chains or private orders for independent bookstores or online orders, whether the author has previously had a best seller… As complicated as it sounds, people have still found ways to game the system (of course). In 1995, the authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders personally ordered 10,000 copies of their own book through small bookstores that they knew were influential in the calculation of best seller figures. It bloody worked, they made the top 10 in a bunch of the lists, and the authors laughed all the way to the bank.

The most widely-recognised list of all – the New York Times Best Seller List – remains a bit of a mystery. It’s been going since 1931, published each week in The New York Times Book Review. The exact method used to compile this particular list is literally a classified trade secret. As best we plebs can tell, it’s based on weekly sales reports from selected independent and chain bookstores in the U.S., but no one really knows for sure. The secrecy is designed to prevent people from rigging the system (authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders, we’re looking at you!), but it also means that readers – like you and I – can’t really evaluate the value of its recommendations, because we don’t know where they come from.




 

For as long as there have been best seller lists, there have been criticisms of them, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing: best seller lists can’t be relied upon to tell us which books are worthwhile. A classic book will always outsell this week’s flash-in-a-pan garbage celebrity memoir over time, but that’s not going to be reflected in a list that only takes this week or this month into account. Some lists are prone to double-counting, because they take into account both wholesale and retail sales, which gives us a false sense of how many people are buying and enjoying those books. And, most worryingly, there will always be authors and publishers that try to game the system, and the reader will (almost) never know when that has happened.

So, ultimately, the message is this: take best seller lists with a grain of salt. All they can really tell us is which books sold a lot of copies over a given period of time, and even then they can’t do that 100% accurately. Sometimes, they really cock it up! Here’s a few examples of when they’ve done just that…

6 Best Sellers That Aren’t Worth Your Time

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

I reviewed Chris Kyle’s autobiography this week, and it was a real stinker. It wasn’t just terribly written, it was also a really horrible story about a really horrible man. There was no nuance, no critical reflection, and no honest insight: just the story of a white man who liked killing brown people so much, he became the “best” at it. It’s enough to turn your stomach. If you’re looking for an interesting military read, check out Catch-22 or The White Mouse – neither of them have the words “best seller” on the cover, but they’ll be much better for your brain.


Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

Sadly, it’s become really popular to shit all over this book, which I don’t think is “cool” or funny. The performative dislike of something that other people love is boring and played out, so if you’re here for that, sit down.

That said, from a literary critique perspective… Fifty Shades of Grey kind of sucks.

I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Fifty Shades has sold 70 million copies worldwide (and the story of a young girl’s free-fall into the unhealthiest BDSM relationship of all time has now become a major movie franchise, too). James originally self-published, seemingly without the input of a professional editor – and boy, does it show. It’s too laughably bad to be sexy. If you’re looking for some decent literary smut, check out my list of books that are sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There’s no reason your titillating filth can’t have some literary cred. 😉

The Secret – Rhonda Byrne

Some years ago, I was going through a tough time, and a well-meaning friend gave me a copy of The Secret. Now, I’m not looking down on anyone who reads self-help books (hell, I’ve read a few), and it’s certainly not my place to pick apart The Secret’s specific methodologies. It’s just that this one, the grand poobah of all self-help books, is terribly written, and laughably expensive for what it is. If you’re looking for a book to help you figure out your mess of a life, skip past this one.

Twilight – Stephanie Meyer

I know it’s a pretty shit go for me to say a best seller isn’t worth your time when I haven’t actually read it myself, but Twilight appears on so many “worst best seller” lists out there that I couldn’t possibly not include it here! The series has sold over a hundred million copies (not an exaggeration), the fact that it’s the story of a vulnerable teenage girl being exploited by her vampire boyfriend (and ending up in some kind of love triangle with a werewolf, or something?) apparently doesn’t put people off. I think we can do better, folks. Dracula was hardly a feminist call-to-arms, but you’re certainly better off chucking a few dollars towards Bram Stoker’s estate than you would be buying the Twilight series. For sure.

Fun fact: Fifty Shades of Grey was originally conceived as an erotic Twilight fan-fiction series. That should tell you something about both of them. 😉



Artemis – Andy Weir

The Martian was fucking fantastic, so it’s no surprise that Andy Weir’s follow-up novel, Artemis, sold like crazy. Everybody clamored to get their hands on the next speculative fiction masterpiece, but unfortunately the consensus seems to be that it really doesn’t hold up. I have not come across a single review that says it even comes close to The Martian, let alone surpasses it. The main criticism seems to be that Weir does a particularly clumsy job of writing a female protagonist. The extract I read left me asking the age-old question: why do male authors constantly write their female heroines as talking or thinking about how “hot” their own bodies are? No woman does this.

I won’t be buying Artemis, I’m afraid, but The Martian is definitely worth your time – and I wish Weir all the best in his next effort!

The Maze Runner – James Dashner

I’ve not yet read The Maze Runner either, but it is on The List, and I’m fairly confident that I’m not going to love it. For starters, when I first showed my husband – who knows me pretty damn well – a copy of The List, he saw that I’d included The Maze Runner and he groaned. Loudly. He strongly recommended that I remove it, and I, of course, told him to get stuffed (nobody tells baby what to do with her List!). Still, his opinion counts for something.

Anyway, aside from that little personal anecdote, there are other reasons to include The Maze Runner on this list. It would seem it was written for the Hunger Games crowd, but it falls short in a lot of respects. Plus, earlier this year James Dashner was dropped by his U.S. publisher (Penguin Random House), and dumped by his agent, after serious sexual harassment allegations surfaced in a trade publication. He has released a statement saying that he would be seeking “counseling and guidance” with regards to his behaviour.

As you can see, it’s not that hard for a really average book to make it to the top of a best seller list. Best seller lists really aren’t your best guide to what’s worth reading – sometimes they get it right, but there are plenty of best sellers that aren’t worth your time (or your hard-earned cash!). Have you read any terrible best sellers lately? Let me know in the comments below (or name and shame them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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 BrontĂ«s.

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Who Were The Brontës?

There’s not a whole lot of sex/drugs/rock’n’roll in the BrontĂ« story, but bear with me. In 1812, a clergyman from a barely-literate Irish family (that’d be Patrick BrontĂ«) 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 BrontĂ«s 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 BrontĂ« 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 BrontĂ«s 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 BrontĂ« Parsonage Museum) for booklovers from around the world. None of the BrontĂ«s 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 BrontĂ«? 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 BrontĂ« 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 from Keeping Up With The Penguins – be sure to check out my full review here.

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 BrontĂ« of all time, don’t you think?

Anne Brontë 

When you start Googling people’s opinions on who was the best BrontĂ«, you’re going to come across a squillion articles talking up Anne – the “forgotten” BrontĂ« 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 Wildfell; 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 BrontĂ«, 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 BrontĂ«, 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 BrontĂ« 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 BrontĂ«.

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 protĂ©gĂ©, 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 BrontĂ«

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 BrontĂ«’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.

Literature Wars Fiction Versus Non Fiction - Black Text Overlaid on Image of Man Facing Away on a White Background - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. Instead, 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.

The Complete(ish) Beginner's Guide To Really Old Poems - Text Overlaid on Image of Hand Written Page - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 allow 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 on to 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. Then they 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 to 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 to the curb, 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.

The Best Bad Women in Fiction - Black and Red Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Smoking - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 descends 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 – make sure you’re subscribed so you’ll 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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