Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 9)

7 Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

If I’m being honest, the whole Keeping Up With The Penguins project is founded on the idea of reading all the books I wish I’d read sooner. This post could just be the full list of 109 books I’ve challenged myself to read, and we could all go home happy. Still, as I work my way through them, I realise there are a handful that, for one reason or another, I especially wish I’d come to earlier in life, books I should have read long before I finally got around to them. So, here’s my highlights reel of books I wish I’d read sooner.

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Now that I’ve read The Book Thief, I feel like I see it everywhere. Granted, there’s probably a little confirmation bias at play there, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. My Instagram and Pinterest feeds are filled with gushing, adoring reviews from (mostly) teenage fans. I think, for a lot of them, this is the first WWII story they’ve emotionally connected with, the first one to truly show them the human impact of military conflict. Had I read The Book Thief as a young teen, before encountering Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, I likely would have had the same reaction. I wish I’d read it then, before I engaged with numerous harrowing real-life stories of the Second World War. As it stands, with The Book Thief and historical WWII fiction in general, I’m a bit cynical and often find that for me they don’t stand up to the true accounts. Read my full review here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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Long-time Keeper-Upperers are probably sick of hearing me talk about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but I don’t care: I’ll be recommending this book with my very last breath. I can’t believe I’d never even heard of it before beginning the KUWTP project, despite it having been shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It’s a wonderful story of family, secrets, and humanity, that in my mind sets the standard for contemporary fiction. I dearly wish I’d read it sooner, so that I could have started recommending it sooner, and sold more people on it! I guess I’ll just have to do my best to make up for lost time… Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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I’ve had a long and fraught relationship with Pride And Prejudice. The first time I picked it up, I think I was in high-school, and I abandoned it about 30 pages in. Between then and now, I can recall at least five additional attempts, all of which ended much the same way. It’s only very recently that I’ve managed to finish the whole thing, and I have no idea why I put it off for so long, or why I struggled so much with it! It was wonderful! I really enjoyed it, and found the love story really comfortingly familiar, full of what we now recognise as archetypes of English literature. I wish I’d copped onto myself sooner and just forced myself to persist with it, because it has informed a lot of my reading and critical analysis ever since. Read my full review here.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

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Fahrenheit 451 is another one I wish I’d got to in high-school, back when I first started getting interest in politics, government, power, surveillance, and control. It probably would have felt like a revelation back then, especially if I’d read it alongside my now-all-time-favourite Nineteen Eighty-Four. I know a lot of teenagers are forced to read Fahrenheit 451 for English classes, but somehow I escaped that particular rite of passage, and as such I didn’t come to it until very recently. It really didn’t evoke any strong feelings from me, aside from a sense of let-down after hearing it hyped up for so long. I felt very similarly upon my first reading of Lord Of The Flies. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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My reason for this one is a little self-indulgent, but I couldn’t put this post together without including it (forgive me!): I dearly wish I’d read David Copperfield, or any other Dickens, while my grandfather was alive. He was a huge fan of Dickens, he worshipped every word the man wrote, and even though I wouldn’t have got as much out of it personally had I read it back then, I would have loved the opportunity to talk it over with him. We had many long, wonderful conversation about other books and literature in general, and even though he never outright pressured me to pick up anything from Dickens, I know he would have loved to share his thoughts with me. So, here’s my heartfelt suggestion for all of you: if an older person in your life has a favourite book, read it now so you can discuss it with them, and share that memory, before they pass on! Read my full review here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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Here’s another book I shamelessly plug at any opportunity: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I wish I’d read it sooner so I could have brought it up in every god-awful conversation I’ve ever had about The Great Gatsby. I’ve listened to so many people opine about Fitzgerald’s supposed genius, and spent hours of my life I’ll never get back hearing all about how he definitively captured life in the Jazz Age. Ugh! Had I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sooner, I would have had a counterpoint ready to offer. It’s a far superior book, and as far as I’m concerned it should be required reading on at least the same scale as stinkin’ Gatsby. This is another one I’ll be recommending with my dying breath. Read my full review here.

The White Mouse by Nancy Wake

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The White Mouse was a quiet little book, not one that many readers have heard of, but it’s the autobiography of a truly incredible woman. It lives in the shadow of a far longer, more detailed, more “literary” history of her life and exploits, written by Peter Fitzsimons, which is also a great read. But for me, nothing quite compares to reading someone’s story in their own words, even if they’re not a naturally talented writer. I wish I’d read The White Mouse while Nancy Wake was still alive, firstly so that she would have received a little royalty cheque from my purchase, but secondly so that I could have had the chance to lobby the Australian government on her behalf to pay her the pension I feel she was well and truly owed by our country. That said, I feel lucky to have read it at all. Read my full review here.


If you’ve not yet read any of these, take it from me: you want to get on them a.s.a.p., before it’s too late! Are there any books you wish you’d read sooner? Drop your recommendations in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

If You Like This, Then Try That: 10 Read-Alike Book Recommendations

Have you ever read a book so good you didn’t want it to end? Has it left you wondering what to read next? Allow me to introduce you to the world of read-alikes: book recommendations based on books you already know you love. The book blogging world is full of people suggesting read-alikes, so I thought today I’d try my hand at it. Some of these are a little obvious, I’ll grant you, but others I like to think are a bit different, suggestions you wouldn’t normally consider for yourself. Here are my ten read-alike book recommendations…

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If you liked Paper Towns by John Green, then try… Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

John Green is a YA juggernaut, and I don’t know a single reader in that genre who hasn’t picked up at least one of his books. Rainbow Rowell is perhaps a lesser-known alternative, but if you liked Paper Towns, then Fangirl will probably be right up your alley. Fangirl is the story of Cath, a recent high-school graduate headed to university and trying to find her place in the world. She struggles with whether her passion for fanfiction is “legitimate”, but has to set her own anxieties aside when dealing with her family members’ mental health issues.

Read my full review for Paper Towns here, and for Fangirl here.

If you liked To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, then try… I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

To Kill A Mockingbird is beloved by millions of readers, young and old alike. Even though it deals with some really tough subject matter – violence, racism, and injustice – there’s a river of hope that runs throughout. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a coming-of-age autobiography that deals with many of these same issues in a similar setting, and with an equally optimistic promise – with inner strength (and a love of literature) you can overcome terrible hardship.

Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here, and my review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is coming soon!

If you liked The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins, then try… We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

It wasn’t long ago that you’d see the dark cover of The Girl On The Train everywhere you turned, and its presence only doubled with the release of the popular film adaptation. Alongside Gone Girl, it sparked a huge trend in thriller stories of violence and manipulation told by unreliable female narrators. Now, you might have heard that We Were Liars is a young-adult book and assumed it couldn’t possibly be as dark or gripping as Hawkins’ break-out novel, but check yourself! The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking back to The Girl On The Train and how similar I found them, so it’s worth giving it a try.

Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here, and We Were Liars here.

If you liked The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, then try… All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is one of those “obvious” pairings I was talking about in the beginning, but I’m still surprised how often I come across someone who has read one but not the other. If you read and loved The Book Thief when it first came out a decade ago (perhaps you were part of the teenage target market at the time), consider All The Light We Cannot See your level-up adult alternative. It, too, tells the story of a young girl in the midst of WWII, but it intertwines with the story of a young German orphan who finds himself playing a key role for the Nazis. Plus, Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 2015, so you know it’s got the literary chops.

Read my full review of The Book Thief here, and All The Light We Cannot See here.

If you liked The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, then try… Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Lovers of The Alchemist tend to be the type to seek out literature that will help them grow and improve. That makes Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance a must-read for them! Like Coelho’s book, it’s not self-help per se, but it’s a fascinating fictionalised autobiography that explores the Metaphysics of Quality. It’s powerful, it’s penetrating, and it will teach you a lot about how to live.

Read my full review of The Alchemist here, and my review of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is coming soon!

If you liked As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, then try… The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Even die-hard Faulkner fans have to admit that As I Lay Dying is a weird book. When I read it, I had to map out a little genealogical table for myself to keep all the different narrators straight! But weird as it may be, it’s also a beautiful depiction of life for a poor family living in the rural American South, as is The Grapes Of Wrath. Steinbeck’s prose is a lot more straightforward and accessible than Faulkner’s, but that doesn’t make it a simple book to read. In fact, it’s an emotional gut-punch that will stay with you long after you turn the final pages.

Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here (genealogical table included, if you think it would help you!), and The Grapes Of Wrath here.

If you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams, then try… The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett

In my view, this is the most logical pairing of this post, despite the long-standing rivalry between science-fiction and fantasy readers. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a hilarious satirical romp through space, very similar in tone and approach to the adventures through the fantasy Discworld found in The Colour Of Magic. And, best of all, like Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s the first in a long series of books, so if you love it you’ll have plenty more to keep you going for a while!

Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here, and The Colour Of Magic here.

If you liked Emma by Jane Austen, then try… Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Austen is one of the most recognisable names in English literature, and Emma is often cited as her best and most-loved novel. Stella Gibbons, on the other hand, is a relative unknown, but I was delighted to discover that Cold Comfort Farm could more than hold its own. Like Emma, it’s a social satire, told through the eyes of a young woman, only in Gibbons’ story she goes to live with her impoverished relatives with a view to being their Mary Poppins slash Henry Higgins. The humour is a little less subtle, perhaps, and there’s less lovey-dovey business, but I’m sure even the most devoted Austen fans will find many hearty laughs and knowing nods in this one.

Read my full review of Emma here, and Cold Comfort Farm here.

If you liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, then try… Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

The Rosie Project, the story of eccentric Don Tillman’s unconventional quest for love and happiness, won the hearts of millions of readers around the world, despite his somewhat odd behaviours and his unique approach to managing relationships. If stories about people who see the world differently appeal to you, then you should definitely pick up Instructions For A Heatwave. I’m thinking specifically of the character Aoife, who has managed to build a successful life for herself in New York City while hiding a terrible secret…

Read my full review of The Rosie Project here, and stay tuned for my review of Instructions For A Heatwave.

If you liked In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, then try… Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

On paper, it might seem like Capote and Safran are worlds apart: different time periods, different religious backgrounds, different countries, different sexualities… and yet I love them both for very similar reasons, namely their irreverence and their talent for storytelling. In Cold Blood was a triumph, an absolute must-read for fans of true crime, and it revolutionised the genre. Decades later, Safran followed in Capote’s footsteps, travelling to the American South to investigate another murder, this one even more intriguing and fraught with danger. From him, we get Murder In Mississippi (US title: God’ll Cut You Down), the perfect contemporary complement.

Read my full review of In Cold Blood here, and keep your eyes peeled for my review of Murder In Mississippi.

Are you going to give any of these pairings a go? Please do, because I’d love to hear what you think! Leave your feedback in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

In Search Of Diverse Books: Why We Should All Have A Diverse Reading List

My main motivation for reviewing The Lake House this week was having spent weeks before that reading only books written by straight white men back-to-back. My inner bookworm was protesting, clambering for a book by or about a woman who wasn’t just put there to prop up a male ego. It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered time and again as I read my way through the Keeping Up With The Penguins list, which is mostly books by and about straight white men (read my explanation of how that happened here). When I find myself feeling this way, it always prompts me to think about the importance of diversity in our reading lists. “Diversity” as an idea is usually associated with books for children or young adults, and books assigned as required reading in schools and universities. Today, I want to take a look at why it’s important for everyone – even adult recreational readers – to seek and find diversity in their reading lives.

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What Does It Mean To Read Diversely?

I’ve covered this before on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but here’s a recap: there are a lot of different opinions about what makes a reading list “diverse”, but my preferred definition is the inclusion of books by and about people who look and live differently to you.

For me, that means including books by people of colour, people with disabilities, people with diverse sexualities, and people with different gender identities in my reading life.

When I look back over the books I was assigned to read over the course of my education, I realise they were almost all written by (surprise, surprise) straight white cis-men. And most of those straight white cis-men did not have a disability, they lived comfortable middle-to-upper-class lives, and they held positions of relative privilege in their societies.

All too often, books by people who didn’t match that identity were relegated to “optional” or “background” reading. At best, there would be a token effort to include one woman or person of colour in a reading list. When it came to books I chose for myself, before I started this project, they were mostly books written by and about white women – people who looked like me. I think I did better than most at finding some diversity in books, but there was definitely much room for improvement.

Now and then, when there are calls to feminise or decolonise or queer an “official” reading list, it’s met with a backlash and hyperbolic accusations of “knocking Shakespeare off the syllabus” or “indoctrinating kids in political correctness instead of teaching them the classics”. So, let’s be clear: the focus is always (in my past experience, and here today) on inclusive diversity. No good will come from pushing new groups to the front and others to the back. There’s no need to necessarily exclude anything from your reading life, and reading diversely will in fact expand your options. Think of it like food: trying Thai cuisine or Indian curry doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy steak and chips.

Why Should We Read Diversely? Why Does It Matter?

I know I said I wanted to expand the conversation about diverse reading to include adult recreational readers outside the academic world, but unfortunately there’s not much research available on the effects of diversity in personal reading. Much of what we know comes from looking at children and teenagers and people in the educational system. That said, I think a lot of the research can be extrapolated to apply to everyone, so I’m going to give it a go…

If we don’t support diverse books, publishers won’t publish them

It shouldn’t come as any news to you that there needs to be a viable market for a product in order for it to be produced in the capitalist hellscape, and books are no exception. If more people purchase books written by marginalised authors, publishers will acknowledge that a demand for these books exist. They’ll seek to serve it (read: make money) by publishing more of those books, which, in turn, will offer us more choice and diversity in the books that are available to read. The power of the consumer dollar is one that is, ironically, often forgotten by those who hold it (us!).

Buying diverse books is honestly the easiest way to not only diversify our own reading, but to ensure that they keep getting published. And we desperately need to take action on that front! In 2013, out of 3,200 children’s books published in the U.S., only 93 of them featured African American characters. No, I didn’t miss a digit, that’s not a percentage: literally only 2.9% of them!

And what’s worse is that this rate actually represents a drop from the last study, in 1965, which had 6.7% of books featuring a black character. What this tells us is that, as recently as six years ago, the publishing industry considered diverse children’s books a losing bet.

Luckily, we’re seeing more and more focus on providing children with reading material that reflects the real world (which, despite what some would have us believe, is not straight, white, and male by default). If children grow up with diverse books, they’ll grow up to demand equivalent age-appropriate books as they become teenagers, and then adults. So, as much as we’ve struggled with this in the past, the future looks bright.

Mirror Books and Window Books

The idea of books being “windows” or “mirrors” comes from an amazing article by Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, back in 1990. Window books are those that allow you to see into another world that doesn’t look like your own, while in mirror books you see your own life and experiences reflected back at you. Ideally, a diverse reading list would contain a mix of both. Unfortunately, marginalised readers are usually provided with endless windows, while privileged readers see only mirrors. That ain’t good!

Looking at the world through only windows, or only mirrors, will give you a distorted perspective. If you can’t see the diverse world around you, you’ll struggle to connect with it or empathise with others in any meaningful way. You’ll miss out on opportunities to learn how to develop relationships with people who live differently to you, or how to manage tough topics that don’t affect you personally (such as racially-biased law enforcement). Reading diverse books gives you the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus Finch would say, and discover just how much you actually have in common with “different” people.

Plus, by increasing the number of mirror books for marginalised groups (through the power of the consumer dollar, as I mentioned just before), we’ll actually increase rates of literacy and engagement with books. People are, naturally, more enthusiastic about reading when they see themselves and their lives reflected in at least some of the pages, and that’s a tendency that we see play out in children and adults alike.

Exercise for your thinking muscle

Learning to read, and the act of practicing that skill, literally changes the structure of your brain. Yes, I’m saying that reading is a physical activity, even if it feels like you’re just sitting on your bum staring at words on a page. The act of reading improves just about every measure of brain health we have: the strength of connections between different regions, how quickly parts of the brain communicate with one another, and so on.

Those physical transformations equate, in psychological terms, to improved overall cognitive and emotional health. Voracious readers, especially those who read varied and diverse books, demonstrate much higher levels of emotional health, empathy, and resilience. These are the buzzwords, people, I know you’ve all heard them, and I’m telling you that reading lots of books, particularly diverse books, is how they go from hypothetical nice-to-haves to actual real-world benefits for your career and personal life.

Think about it: wouldn’t you rather work with or live with the emotionally resilient person who shows great empathy (and can give you endless great book recommendations)? Thought so!

Countering Psychological Biases Through Reading

You may not realise it, but what you read affects the way your brain identifies patterns and makes associations in the real world. Even if you’re Woke(TM), changes are your reactions – if tested – would show what’s called “implicit bias”, meaning you’re more likely to behave in a certain way (in line with stereotypes) when confronted with a person or situation. The most common example of this is the shooter bias test, which shows that even people who score low on measures of prejudice are more likely to shoot at black men than white men in a computer game (black male subjects show this bias, too).

Another example is the “stereotype threat”, which you might be more familiar with as the concept of “you’ve got to see it to be it”. If, say, the stereotype of a doctor is a white non-disabled male, people who don’t fit that description are likely to underperform in medical school (because they subconsciously believe that they don’t fit the stereotype of what a doctor “should” be). Plus, their patients are more likely to anticipate under-performance from them. It hardly seems fair, eh?

The good news is that a diverse reading life helps counter both of these psychological biases, and many others. Books written about the experiences of people of colour, people with disabilities, people of diverse sexualities, and so on, all serve to counteract the stereotypes that lead to the development of these biases in the first place. Plus, the presence of diverse books on our shelves and on our reading lists sends a message to young marginalised writers: you belong here, and there’s room in the stereotype of “author” or “artist” for you.

Like it or not, in the 21st century, we are all global citizens and global participants. We should take responsibility for ensuring that we approach each encounter with someone who looks and lives differently to us in a way that is fair, just, and unbiased.

Read More, Read Better

This is one of my favourite ways that reading diversely, and thinking more about diversity in my reading life, has benefited me personally: it’s made me better at reading all those canonical straight-white-male books! Reading more diversely gives me new “lenses” through which I examine those texts, and ways of thinking about them that wouldn’t otherwise have crossed my mind.

Take, for instance, the way I experienced Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. On its face, it’s an early kind of monster/science-fiction story, which is fine… but I enjoyed it so much more when I considered a queer reading, looking at how the story could be a metaphor for life as a gay man in Victorian England. Cool, eh?

Reading diverse books fine-tunes your radar for looking at all books, including the classics. You’ll start to identify the stories that are silenced or misrepresented. You’ll think more critically about, say Mr Rochester’s decision to keep his Creole wife locked in the attic, or Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg and Ahab. Once you start diversifying your reading life, it will pretty much double (even triple) your catalogue of books, because you’ll start seeing all your old favourites in a whole new light.

My Favourite TED Talks on Diverse Reading and Storytelling

Did you just scroll down past that big block of text? I don’t blame you! It’s a lot to take in. Some people learn better by watching and listening, so check out two of my favourite TED talks on diverse reading and representative storytelling:

Ann Morgan: My year reading a book from every country in the world

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story

Where To Start: A List of Diverse Books

So, now that (I’m sure) you’re convinced you should diversify your reading list, I’ve put together a few book recommendations to get you started. You’ll notice that there’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, because both of them have value in terms of learning and growing through diversity. That said, it’s important to note that taking a list like this one, and reading everything on it, shouldn’t end with you thinking “Yep, I’m done, I can check ‘reading diversely’ off my to-do list!”. This is just a primer to get you started on intentionally incorporating diversity into your reading life. Just like going to the gym a few times in January won’t turn you into a bodybuilder, reading a couple books by non-white or non-male authors and then scurrying right back to Hemingway won’t make you a diverse reader.

Authors of Colour

An Artist of the Floating World: A novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, set in post-WWII Japan. An ageing painter, Masuji Ono, must come to terms with his past role in the war effort and the way it affects his family’s position in the world. Read my full review here.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: The autobiography of American poet and writer Maya Angelou, who came of age in the U.S. in the ’30s and ’40s. Through this incredible book, she shows us how strength and love can combat racism and trauma.

The Kite Runner: The first novel from Afghan-American author Kahled Hosseini. It’s set in Kabul, and it follows the story of a young boy growing up through the Soviet military intervention and the rise of the Taliban.

Female, Trans, and Non-Binary Authors

The Bell Jar: A haunting (and largely autobiographical) novel, the only one written by Sylvia Plath. It depicts a young woman’s descent into mental illness, and her struggle to regain her health through treatment. Read my full review here.

Chelsea Girls: Eileen Myles‘ best-known work, an inventive and vivid novel about the hard realities of life as a young queer artist in ’70s and ’80s New York City.

The Trauma Cleaner: The compelling and fascinating real-life story of Sandra Pankhurst (written by Australian author Sarah Krasnostein), a trauma cleaner, gender-reassignment surgery recipient, and former sex worker living and working in Melbourne.

Authors With Disabilities

Sick: A Memoir: Porochista Khakpour‘s memoir about her life with chronic illness, and the colossal impact it has had on her body, her relationships, and her experiences.

Say Hello: Australian disability activist Carly Findlay‘s new memoir about life with a facial difference. In it, she challenges the ingrained idea that people who look different are “villains”.

Look Me In The Eye: A moving, dark, and sometimes funny true story of John Elder Robinson‘s life with Asperger’s, highlighting the challenges he faced before and after diagnosis.

Authors of Diverse Sexualities

The Picture Of Dorian Gray: One of the pillars of queer literature, Oscar Wilde‘s short novel tells the story of a young man who doesn’t age, but his portrait in the attic does… with startling new resonance in the age of Instagram narcissism. Read my full review here.

Less: Arthur Sean Greer‘s self-deprecating and hilarious epic, following the adventures of Arthur Less, a hapless author and “the only homosexual to ever grow old”. A Pulitzer Prize winner!

Her Body And Other Parties: An incredible short story collection from Carmen Maria Machado, that straddles the borders between genres. It contains elements of magical realism, science fiction, comedy, horror, and fantasy, with delightful twists on the tropes and stories you already know so well.

Ready For More Diverse Books?

One of the best resources on the internet is We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit grassroots organisation promoting diverse literature that represents all lived experiences. Their focus is primarily on children’s books, but their Where To Find Diverse Books page will also point you towards publishers of works marketed to adults and prizes for diverse literature for all ages.

I also wrote a post at the beginning of 2019 on How To Read More Diversely, as part of my How To Read More series. There’s more recommended reads in there, and if you drop a request in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!) I’ll do my best to find a book that’s right for you.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head. Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I’ve changed my mind. I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

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Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (in fact, Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to take off your feminist-ideals hat to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down, and rolled up my sleeves, and dove in to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue and language don’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life, styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review here.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review here.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review here.


Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

I’m With The Banned: Celebrating The Best Banned Books

Banned Books Week is one of my favourite events in the bookish calendar each year. It’s the annual celebration of the Freedom To Read, endorsed and supported by just about every major literary and library organisation in the U.S., and its influence is spreading around the world. Banned Books Week began in 1983, in response to a surge of books being challenged and censored, especially in school libraries and reading lists. The leaders of the charge seek to advocate for free and open access to information, and the freedom to seek and express ideas, even if they’re unorthodox or unpopular. Last year, I put together a list of ridiculous (real!) reasons that beloved books have been banned. This time around, I thought I’d give you a list of the best banned books, with a heaping serve of encouragement that you check out any that pique your interest.

I'm With The Banned - Celebrating The Best Banned Books - Text Overlaid on Collage of Caution Signage - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

When this incredible Young Adult fiction offering was released in 2017, it made a huge splash. The Hate U Give won every award you can imagine, and it was the most searched-for book on Goodreads that year. Readers, young and adult alike, were captivated by the story of a 16-year-old black girls’ journey into activism, inspired by police violence perpetrated against her childhood friend. The themes are heavy and controversial, so of course it must be challenged and censored (blegh); it’s been accused of being “pervasively vulgar” for its depiction of drug use and profanity.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The story of Atticus Finch, told through the eyes of his daughter Scout, defending a black man wrongly accused of a terrible crime is a beloved classic of American literature. Harper Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for her efforts, and her book continues to grow in popularity, circulating more and more widely each year. And yet, with To Kill A Mockingbird‘s widening reach comes ongoing and increasing challenges to its inclusions in school curricula, mostly on the basis of its violence and use of the N-word.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

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This 2003 novel was the first from Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner tells the story of a young Kabul boy, Amir, and it’s a multi-generational tale told over the fall of the Afghani monarchy, the Soviet military intervention, the rise of the Taliban, and the mass exodus of refugees from the country. It’s gripping stuff, right? Unfortunately, it has since been challenged and banned on the grounds that it depicts sexual violence, contains “offensive language”, could “lead to terrorism”, and “promotes Islam”. Proving, once again, that some people just hate what they can’t understand…

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime – Mark Haddon

The publisher’s website proudly proclaims that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime is one of the most talked-about books of the last decade; normally, we’d need to give the marketing people a pass for their liberal use of creative license, but in this case they’re probably not far off the truth. Mark Haddon’s best-selling book follows the story of 15-year-old Christopher as he investigates, with his photographic memory and scientific mind, the mysterious death of his neighbour’s dog. It’s warm, it’s charming, it’s funny – and it’s been challenged for “offensive language”, “profanity”, and “atheism” (of all things), which the concerned parties considered unsuitable for some age groups.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Catcher In The Rye is the definitive disaffected-youth story, and the grown-ups love nothing better than issuing angry adolescents a challenge! Holden Caulfield’s runaway weekend in New York apparently contains too much offensive language and explicit sexuality, making it unsuited to its teenage audience. Can you imagine missing the point of this novel so spectacularly that you actually put those complaints in writing? Smh…

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison has produced some of the best examples in living memory of literature that challenges the systemic and entrenched racism of American society, The Bluest Eye among them. The novel is set in Ohio, where young Pecola struggles under the weight of her inferiority complex, believing that her beauty as a black woman pales in comparison to that of her white-skinned blue-eyed classmates. It has been challenged for being “sexually explicit”, featuring “violence”, and (bafflingly) containing “controversial issues”. One of Morrison’s other novels, Beloved, is often challenged on the same grounds.

The Earth, My Butt, And Other Big Round Things – Carolyn Mackler

I remember loving The Earth, My Butt, And Other Big Round Things in high-school. I read it so many times, the spine on my copy started to fall apart; I tried desperately to find it when I was pulling this post together but, alas, it appears to be lost to the annals of my adolescence. I couldn’t quite believe Mackler’s iconic work was among the most banned books in America, but here we are. Apparently, it contains offensive language and it is “sexually explicit”. I don’t know about any of that, but I read it plenty, and I turned out fine! I would highly recommend gifting a copy to any unsettled teenage girls you know, regardless of what the haters and censors say.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

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

The Hunger Games has been accused of just about everything you can imagine by those who would see it banned from our schools and libraries. When I read it, I could’ve sworn it was a story about a young woman rebelling against a malevolent dictator, and I thought that put it streets ahead of other YA novels in terms of feminism and encouraging young readers to think critically about the power structures in their own lives. Others, however, have called it “anti-ethnic”, “anti-family”, “insensitive”, and “offensive”. They take issue with its allegedly “promoting a religious viewpoint”, and (simultaneously) “depicting Satanism and the occult”. Heck, one of them even called it “sexually explicit”. They must’ve read an entirely different book, because I can’t recall anything along any of these lines…

My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To be honest, when I first saw My Sister’s Keeper in a list of banned books, I half-expected the reason for the challenges to be complaints about the notoriously-unpopular changes they made to the controversial ending for the movie version. But nope! Apparently, this story (about a young girl who sues her parents for control over the decision to donate a kidney to her sister) contains too much “homosexuality”, too much “offensive language”, a “religious viewpoint”, “violence”, and it is “too sexually explicit”. *eyeroll*

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning novel banned for having “offensive language” and being too (say it with me) “sexually explicit”. Do these people really think their kids are never going to hear the word “fuck” or learn about sex? Have they even heard of the internet? But I digress. The Color Purple is a beautiful heart-wrenching exploration of the lives of black women in the American South. Sure, there’s sexualised violence (because that very violence is a lived reality for many women of colour in the real world), but I can’t quite believe that we would deny students the opportunity to learn from Walker’s work on those grounds alone.

What will you be reading for Banned Books Week this year? Have any of your favourite reads been banned or challenged in the past? Tell me all about them below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

My Reading List Page Count: 109 Classic and Best Seller Books From Shortest to Longest

I’m becoming a bit obsessed with looking at my reading list for this project from different angles. I’ve created a bookish timeline to see what period I’m covering, and a world map to look at all the different places I’m travelling, through the magic of the written word. And here’s a peek behind the book blogger curtain for you: I can actually see what searches people use to find Keeping Up With The Penguins, and it would seem that a lot of you are curious about the page counts of classic and best seller books. So today, I’m going to arrange my entire TBR from longest to shortest by page count.

My Reading List Page Count - 109 Classic and Best Seller Books from Shortest to Longest - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Book on Grass and Leaves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Note: these are the page lengths of the actual editions I own, so it might differ from what Wikipedia says or the copy you have at home.)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: 138 pages
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: 150 pages
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: 152 pages
Murphy by Samuel Beckett: 158 pages
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 160 pages
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 161 pages
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: 167 pages
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: 172 pages
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Dougals Adams: 180 pages
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 184 pages
Amongst Women by John MaGahern: 184 pages
The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame: 192 pages
The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene: 192 pages
Party Going by Henry Green: 192 pages



The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet: 201 pages
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: 201 pages
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: 206 pages
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 208 pages
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: 222 pages
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh: 222 pages
If I Stay by Gayle Forman: 224 pages
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: 224 pages
The White Mouse by Nancy Wake: 224 pages
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 227 pages
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 227 pages
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger: 230 pages
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do: 232 pages
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin: 232 pages
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 233 pages
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 234 pages
A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking: 241 pages
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos: 243 pages (*also contains But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which I also read.)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: 247 pages
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: 248 pages
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: 250 pages



The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James: 272 pages (*also contains The Aspen Papers, which I definitely did not read. I’ve had my fill of Henry James.)
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: 274 pages
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding: 285 pages
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: 286 pages
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 288 pages
The Call Of The Wild by Jack London: 288 pages (*also includes White Fang, which I didn’t read. Too much puppy torture!)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 292 pages
Still Alice by Lisa Genova: 293 pages
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham: 296 pages
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 301 pages
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 309 pages
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: 310 pages
A Passage To India by E.M. Forster: 312 pages
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 314 pages
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: 315 pages
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: 316 pages



Kim by Rudyard Kipling: 322 page
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: 323 pages
Yes Please by Amy Poehler: 329 pages
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: 331 pages
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: 334 pages
Paper Towns by John Green: 336 pages
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller: 336 pages
The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen: 336 pages
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: 336 pages
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: 336 pages
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: 343 pages
Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: 344 pages
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: 352 pages
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: 354 pages
The Martian by Andy Weir: 369 pages
The Maze Runner by James Dashner: 371 pages
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: 373 pages
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: 374 pages



The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: 384 pages
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis: 394 pages
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen: 398 pages
Dracula by Bram Stoker: 400 pages
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: 406 pages
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli: 412 pages
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 416 pages
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir: 416 pages
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 416 pages (*also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I did read, too)
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: 432 pages
American Sniper by Chris Kyle: 448 pages
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: 459 pages
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan: 467 pages
Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos: 469 pages
Emma by Jane Austen: 474 pages
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: 478 pages



Divergent by Veronica Roth: 489 pages
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson: 516 pages (*but this is an abridged edition, the full version is literally one of the longest books ever written.)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: 519 pages
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: 531 pages
The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow: 536 pages
The Golden Bowl by Henry James: 547 pages
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett: 569 pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: 584 pages
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: 588 pages
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: 590 pages
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: 596 pages
The Lake House by Kate Morton: 608 pages
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: 622 pages
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: 656 pages
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 656 pages
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 672 pages (*note: also contains other stories)



All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: 672 pages
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: 687 pages
Ulysses by James Joyce: 719 pages
Moby Dick by Herman Melville: 720 pages
A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: 864 pages
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: 883 pages
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: 1056 pages
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 1057 pages

The strangest thing I noticed: page length has very little to do with how long a book feels. Mrs Dalloway felt like a much longer read than My Brilliant Friend, and yet the latter is nearly twice as long in page count. It also felt like a much longer read than The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but in reality they’re about the same length. Weird, eh? Really, you can’t tell much from a book’s page count at all. Some of the classic books, which we all assume will be long and meaty, have the fewest pages, while some of the most-recent best-sellers are doorstops.



So, here’s my total (I know you’re all dying to know): accounting for a few pages of notes skipped here and there and a couple of combination editions where I didn’t read the second book, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me reading 40,700 pages. Not bad! And, of course, you can find links to every single review here (I update the list with the new one published each week). If you’re curious about how many pages are in your TBR, you can find page counts for most editions of most books on Goodreads (and you can friend me while you’re there!). How many pages is your current read? Add to the list in the comments below (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The World-Changing Magic of Books in Translation

As far as unsung heroes go, the world of literature has plenty, but there’s one group in particular who are too easily and too often overlooked: the translators. Think about how different (and dull!) our reading lives would be without Don Quixote, or One Hundred Years Of Solitude, or The Little Prince, or Anna Karenina, or Kafka On The Shore, or The Odyssey, or Waiting For Godot, or any of the thousands of other translated works. What’s more, imagine of those classic works of languages other than English weren’t accessible to later writers, as sources of education and inspiration – it’d be a very bleak literary landscape indeed. So, that’s why today I want to take a look at the world-changing magic of books in translation: how translation works, why it’s important, and some great translated books worth reading.

The World-Changing Magic of Books in Translation - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Language Dictionary with Magnifying Glass - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How Book Translation Works

So, if we’re talking a bare-bones definition, book translation is the translation of prose and poetry into languages other than that in which the original work was written. That could mean translating older classical works, like Dante’s The Divine Comedy, or more contemporary books, like The Invented Part (which won the award for Best Translated Work of 2018). The most obvious reason to translate a book, of any age, is to help it reach a wider audience of people who wouldn’t otherwise get to read it. That said, the true value of books in translation is much, much greater than that. Translation expands and increases a book’s longevity, it helps readers access stories of places and people who experience life in very different ways (which has been shown to increase empathy and basically make us better people), and it has great educational value beyond the field of literature – to linguistics, to history, and to other social sciences.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but books are long and translating hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of a story takes equal parts talent and tenacity. And the act of translating a creative work is very different to that of translating, say, a technical manual or other more straightforward texts. Translating books is a delicate balancing act between faithfulness to the original work and creating a good book in and of itself.

Ultimately, translators aim to evoke the same feelings in the reader and stay true to the artist’s vision, while also creating what is effectively new work in a different language, one that can stand alone as a great read without the reader ever needing know it was written differently (unless they cared to find out). The translator doesn’t just interpret the text word by word into a new language; they also need to find ways to communicate humour, irony, and other idiomatic forms of expression, and that’s not always a one-for-one equation (take a look at any list of idioms translated literally into English, and you’ll see what a job they have cut out for them).


The translator can’t necessarily rely, the way a writer can, on shared or assumed knowledge in the reader, given that language is so closely tied to geography and community. Culture, customs, and traditions that are a given in one part of the world might be virtually inexplicable in the other, and it’s the translator’s job to find an explanation that makes sense. This ain’t just plugging six hundred pages word-by-word into Google Translate; it’s a unique creative process, whereby a translator creates a book with the same spirit and energy, changing and interpreting as need be without corrupting the original.

And pour some out for the translators of poetry, for crying out loud: their work is extra complex, focusing as they must on staying true to the way a story is told and its ideas communicated through verse, not just the story itself.

The Role Of Translators in Literature

This is why I make a point of naming the translator in my reviews of translated books. I mean, aside from anything else, they deserve recognition for their work, but also we must remember that no two translators will approach a work in the same way, and that can give very different results. Take, for instance, Crime and Punishment; I loved the version I read, which was translated by David McDuff, but I can’t really attest as to whether the other translation are as engaging and funny as his. What if they interpreted key passages differently, or chose different words to describe something, and in so doing communicated a completely different meaning?

“There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So, it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative. Anything that is, itself, a ‘linguistic’ quality will by definition be anchored in a particular language – whether it’s idiom, ambiguity, or assonance. All languages are different.”

Daniel Hahn (Former chair and committee member of the Translators Association, also on the board of modern poetry in translation)

And, by extension, all translations are different. All translators produce a unique work of literature, even where the original-language text is the same. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here the #namethetranslator movement, which has brought much attention over recent years to the art of book translation and the role of the translator in expanding our literary world. Be sure to look into it if you want to know more, and support the growing recognition of the role of translators in the publishing industry.

Why don’t people read more books in translation?

Well, I think it’s abundantly clear already why book translation matters, but that’s not reflected in the book sales: books translated into English are notoriously difficult to sell, which makes publishers reluctant to take on the additional cost of acquiring a foreign-language novel and paying someone to translate it (and then paying someone to edit it, and so on). This leads publishers to sometimes (allegedly) attempt to obfuscate the fact that a book is translated, burying the translator’s name deep in the fine print of the inside jacket. Only 633 newly-translated fiction books were published in English in the U.S. in 2016, barely even a drop in the ocean of 300k new books published each year. Less than 3% of books published in the U.S. each year are translations of any kind. So, fewer sales, hidden labours: despite book translation’s long and vital history (see The Oxford History of Literary Translation), we seem to be collectively forgetting why book translation matters in our reading lives, and we’re not supporting it with our consumer dollars.

But with the growth of Amazon, and the wider accessibility of literature more generally, appetite for diverse and balanced literature is growing – and, with it, demand for translated books. Readers are increasingly pressuring publishing houses to provide books, fiction and non-fiction, that expand their horizons and reflect the diversity of authors and stories that are now accessible by the click of a button on other online platforms. So, perhaps we are on the verge of a renaissance of sorts, where we remember why book translation matters and vote with our consumer power to show much we value it as an art form.

Translated Books Worth Reading

Given that a lot of the titles for the Keeping Up With The Penguins project were drawn from the Guardian’s list of the 100 best books written in English, I haven’t reviewed all that many books in translation (yet!). However, of those I have read, these ones are the stand-outs:

And drawing upon my reading life prior to this book blogging project, I also really enjoyed Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and translated by Lydia Davis, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche and translated by R.J. Hollingdale. You might also want to check out some of the recently-translated award winners and short-listed titles: Remains Of Life, The Beekeeper, and Flights. I’m also super-excited to read the forthcoming translated title The Eighth Life.

Which are your favourite books in translation? Drop your suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Movie Review: Divergent (2014)

Alright, I didn’t love Divergent the book (to say the least), so I went into Divergent the movie feeling hopeful. I mean, I could hardly enjoy it any less… could I? I quite liked The Hunger Games movies, which are comparable in almost every way on paper, so it didn’t seem that much of a logical leap. Plus, Divergent pulled in over $289 million after its release in 2014, so plenty of others have found something in it worth watching.

Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, sold the film rights to the first book before she’d even graduated from her Creative Writing degree (show-off). When she first saw the script, she said: “Reading a script is a really interesting experience. I’d never read a script before.” At that point in development, the film was given a budget of $40 million, but that was quickly doubled after the success of The Hunger Games. The production companies, naturally, gave some jargon-y explanation about owning the economics of production, but let’s call it how it is: they realised that young adult dystopian science-fiction action movie adaptations were hot, hotter than they could have imagined, and they wanted to cash in. To avoid any accusations of a rip-off (unsuccessfully, in the end) they made sure to emphasise Divergent‘s urban setting, and they used a much harsher colour scheme (meaning that some scenes were annoyingly dark, while others were startlingly bright). Devoted moviegoers, however, saw through these token efforts, and called them out on it. Ultimately, what truly separates these film franchises is their quality. The Hunger Games is a good book that spawned a good series of films. Divergent is not, and it didn’t.

Yep, I was disappointed – once again – I’m afraid. The film starts with a whole bunch of voice-over exposition, and I literally groaned out loud. It was almost as cliche a technique as the book’s opener, which had the protagonist describe her own reflection in detail. And the cliche punches just kept rolling in: they colour-coded all the factions, for instance, to make sure the audience didn’t have to work too hard keeping them all straight. It was all downhill from there…



Despite all the usual movie-buzz rhetoric around finding a director who was a “perfect fit” to “bring the Divergent world to life”, Neil Burger was an odd choice. By the looks of his IMDB page, he really hadn’t directed all that much before taking on this multi-million dollar juggernaut: a TV movie, a couple TV episodes, a couple movies I’d never heard of. The lead actress, Shailene Woodley, had slightly more experience at least. She starred in the film adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars the same year as Divergent was released, plus she was the original Kaitlin Cooper in The OC years before, so she pretty much covered all the teenage fangirl bases across a couple of generations. She was the only actress they considered for the lead role of Tris, apparently – no one else auditioned for the part. Having seen the finished product, and knowing what I do now about the director, I suspect that perhaps simply no one else wanted it.

I don’t want to sound like I’m shitting all over Divergent indiscriminately. I loved Kate Winslet’s role, for instance. I mean, Winslet is a goddess, whatever she does, but in this film she was particularly impressive. She was five months pregnant during filming, so they had to use the usual strategically-placed props to hide her growing bump; I take particular glee in spotting those on-screen, so that part was fun for me (they used above-the-waist shots, close-ups, positioning, folders, and tablets, in case you were wondering). Winslet is quoted as saying it’s the first time she played a “baddie”. She took the role of Jeannine, the head of the Erudite faction, because she wanted to do something drastically different from her usual roles, and also something her children could watch – mission accomplished! It’s always jarring to hear her speak with an American accent, but she was fantastic (and she rocked the platinum-blonde hair, too).

Another positive note: the train-jumping scenes made me giggle, though probably not for the reasons Burger and Roth intended. It seemed a bit too realistic, much like trying to catch a train in Sydney peak-hour, except their post-apocalyptic service is far more reliable – still running, even in the midst of a civil war. 😉



Divergent was quite faithful, as far as adaptations go. Most of the differences between the movie and book were purely cosmetic (the content of Tris’s aptitude test, for instance) or changed for clear logistical and practical reasons (they had to cut the scene where the kid gets stabbed in the eye with a butter knife, and the sex scene, to keep the PG-13 rating they needed for their intended audience). A handful of minor characters were cut, no one memorable. I’m sure die-hard fans of the book were mostly satisfied with their efforts.

Yes, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for positivity here: this movie was just so bad! It was full of holes and inconsistencies. One that really bugged me was how all the Dauntless initiates miraculously “mastered all forms of combat and weaponry” in, like, two weeks. Tris even got a montage, for crying out loud. Compare that to the real world, where the cast had to be trained in bootcamps for two full months before filming even started, and Woodley had to undergo several days of firearms training to prepare for her role. Plus, there was a whole lot of needle-sharing going on with all these serums being injected every two minutes, which really grossed me out. I guess Hep-C and HIV aren’t a problem after the apocalypse?

Oh, and that apocalypse that they never explain! This was a problem in the book, too: Roth gives the flimsiest-ever back-story, and it just seems unbelievable that no one ever questioned this stupid faction system that was obviously destined to fail. They never explained why or how a society that holds itself out as being destitute, or at the very least resource-scarce, can somehow maintain a huge fenced border, an endless supply of hallucinogenic drugs for training their armies, LCD screens on every available surface in the Erudite compound, and trains that run continuously when only the Dauntless use them (heck, even my relatively well-off city in my relatively well-off country can’t keep much-needed trains running past midnight).



The whole reason I usually enjoy YA film adaptations more than the original books is that they usually cut out all the angst-ridden internal teen monologue narration. That always allows the action to come to the fore and the story tells itself. Not so in the case of Divergent; Burger decided to open and close with what may be the cringiest voice-over of all time. Take Tris’s closing thoughts:

“We’re like the Factionless now. We’ve left everything behind, but we found ourselves and each other. Tomorrow we may have to fight again, but for now we’ll ride the train to the end of the line. And then, we’ll jump.”

Tris (Voiceover) – Divergent (2014)

And yet, despite all this unmitigated crap, the film was a huge commercial success. I mean, they really needed it to be – the marketing campaign cost at least $50 million, on top of their outlay for all the flashy special effects and a cameo for Veronica Roth herself. If they hadn’t pulled in big audience, someone somewhere would have been very fired. Luckily, proper film critics aren’t swayed by swanky marketing, and they almost all had much the same opinion as me: Divergent is generic, it’s predictable, and it’s full of holes. One guy even said it was “barely diverting”, which made me laugh more than any of the lame attempted jokes in the movie itself.

Still, $289 million at the box office isn’t to be sniffed at. They went on to produce a sequel, Insurgent, with a new script writer and a good director. It got slightly better reviews than its predecessor, and took a few million more in sales. But they got over-confident: they decided to split the third movie into two, and Allegiant (Part I) was an absolute stinker. Even worse than the first, believe it or not. Critics panned it, universally, and its box office takings were half that of the previous installment. It pretty much scuppered the chance of getting Part II off the ground, because both the star (Woodley) and the new director (Robert Schwentke) quit in the wake of its horrific failure. There’s some reported plans to turn it into a TV movie or some such nonsense, but if there’s any justice they’ll let it die a quick death and spare us any further pain.

So, which was better, the movie or the book?

Ugh. That’s like asking whether I’d prefer to be stabbed in the right eye or the left. I suppose I’d have to say the book, but that’s only because I think it’s great that it encouraged so many young adults to get into reading for fun. Really, it’s the best house on a bad block. The movie wasn’t worth the time I wasted searching for it on Netflix, let alone actually watching the thing.



Movie Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

It took quite a few iterations for this film to reach our screens: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1953 musical comedy, was based on the 1949 stage musical of the same name, which was in turn based on the 1925 comic novel of the same name by Anita Loos. All the work was worth it, though; it was the ninth-highest grossing film that year, taking $5.3 million at the box office (on a budget of $2.3 million), and it stars, of course, the incomparable Marilyn Monroe in one of her most iconic roles.

One of my favourite things about films of this era is that they put the credits right at the beginning, before you’re tired and hungry for (more) snacks. It’s a good thing, in this case, because I needed laser-sharp focus to find Anita Loos’ name! She’s buried right at the bottom, beneath the other screen-writers, which seems a bit rough given that the entire story and its characters were her creation. And here’s another fun fact I picked up about how work was valued on this film: despite Monroe’s role as the titular Blonde that Gentlemen Prefer, she was only paid her usual contract salary of $500 per week, while her co-star Jane Russell, earned a whopping $200,000. It seems hard to believe now, but at the time Jane was actually the more experienced and well-known actress of the two.

Anyway, to the plot: there are some significant departures from Loos’ book, which shouldn’t be surprising given the telephone-game of adaptations it went through to get to the screen. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the movie, Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) are showgirls, rather than society girls, and the timeline has been shifted up a few decades so it’s no longer set in the Jazz Age. Lorelei is engaged to Gus Esmond, a dorky-looking fellow who falls all over himself to buy her things and treat her well. However, he’s simultaneously under the thumb of his wealthy father, who believes the fun-loving money-hungry Lorelei to be a bad influence (imagine!).

Dorothy isn’t attached, and she seeks a different kind of love to Lorelei. She’s drawn to men who are good-looking and fit, regardless of their prospects. About twenty minutes in, Lorelei declares in frustration (which had me in hysterics):

“You don’t want to end up in a loveless marriage, do you? If a girl spends her time worrying about money, she doesn’t have no time for love! I want you to find happiness, and stop having fun.”

Lorelei Lee, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Lorelei plans to marry Esmond in France, and they’ve got tickets to sail there together, but Papa Esmond intervenes. He forces his son to stay at home and plants a private investigator on the cruise liner, to keep an eye on her (more on that in a minute). Esmond sends Lorelei off with a blank cheque and tells her not to worry, he’ll meet her there, but also warns her to behave herself, lest any stories of her misadventures get back to his father.

The private dick is Ernie Malone, and he seems to take the place of DA Bartlett and Major Falcon from the book. The whole storyline of Lorelei’s former life of felonies and her role in military espionage is removed. Instead, Malone falls in love with Dorothy, and has to balance his desire to impress her with his obligation to tail Lorelei and catch her in a compromising position. Dorothy initially fobs him off, preferring the all-male Olympic athletics team on board (which seemed just a convenient excuse for an extremely camp scene of mostly-naked men in beige boxers dancing flamboyantly for her in a gym, heaven!), but eventually she comes to return Malone’s affections.

Naturally, Lorelei gets herself into trouble. She meets and charms the rich geriatric Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman, owner of a diamond mine, much to the chagrin of his wife (who is also on board). When Lorelei and Piggy are alone in her cabin, he recounts his travels to Africa and demonstrates how a python squeezes a goat by hugging her close (wink-wink) – the perfect moment for Malone to snap a picture of them.

Dorothy spots Malone hustling away with his camera, and she and Lorelei concoct a scheme to get Malone drunk and steal the film from him. Lorelei lures him to her cabin, and they convince him to drink up with what is now my favourite rhyming toast of all time:

“There was an old fellow named Sidney

Who drank ’til he ruined a kidney

It shrivelled and shrank, but he drank and he drank

And he had fun doing it, didn’t he?”

Lorelei Lee, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Of course, with encouragement like that, Malone writes himself off. (Oh, okay, fine, Lorelei spikes his drink and I find that a really gross and creepy addition to the story that I’d rather forget, so let’s not mention it again.) The girls find the incriminating film in his pants (not a euphemism) and Lorelei takes it straight to Piggy, bragging about her cleverness and discretion. He offers her a thank-you gift, and she asks for Lady Beekman’s diamond tiara. I actually like this version of that particular sub-plot better than the book; it’s sacrilegious, I know, but it’s a lot less convoluted than Lorelei convincing him to buy her one and Lady Beekman chasing her across the world to steal it.

When the ship arrives in France, Lorelei and Dorothy hit the shops hard. It’s all going swimmingly for them, until they’re abruptly ejected from their hotel and Esmond’s cheque bounces. It turns out that Malone had a recording device planted in the room, in case his Peeping Tom routine didn’t work out, and he’s shared his findings with Papa Esmond. Lorelei’s engagement has been unceremoniously called off. Esmond shows up to confront her about her indiscretion, and she shuts him down with her now-iconic performance of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, making it abundantly clear to him that women are sensible to chase the security that money brings and forget about love.

While she’s thawing out Esmond’s cold dead heart through the power of song, Lady Beekman files charges against her for the theft of the tiara, and when Lorelei comes off stage she is arrested. Dorothy convinces Lorelei to just give the damn thing back, but when they go to retrieve it they find it’s missing from her jewellery box. The two of them concoct another hair-brained scheme, to have Malone track down Piggy while Dorothy disguises herself as Lorelei (complete with blonde wig and fake accent) to present at court. Sure enough, Malone reveals in court that Piggy had the tiara all along, Lorelei is exonerated, and the day is saved!

In the final scenes, Esmond has decided he’s ready to forgive and he and Lorelei go to leave the club together, but Papa Esmond shows up to make one last attempt at destroying their future happiness. He accuses Lorelei of being after her fiance’s money, at which she laughs and tells him not to be silly – she’s after his! Then she gives a rather impressive speech about how money is an asset for a man in the same way looks are an asset for a woman in this bullshit patriarchal society we’ve created. After all, she implores him, if Papa Esmond had a daughter, he’d want the best for her and that would mean marrying a man with a fortune – why should he begrudge Lorelei the same? He agrees, and the film ends with a joint wedding for Lorelei and Dorothy, marrying Esmond and Malone respectively. It’s a very sanitised ending compared to the book…

… but, really, the whole film is a rather sanitised version of Loos’ original creation. They’ve erased Lorelei’s diary completely from the plot, and thereby taken away a lot of her cleverness. She comes across as a simple gold-digger, practically two-dimensional, instead of the insightful, witty woman we came to know and love through her journal. The only upside is that Dorothy has a lot more agency in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the movie. She’s a lot more decisive, and much more likeable and relatable as a result. Plus, she has dynamite outfits! In fact, all of the costumes are perfection. I can’t resist the visual appeal of a camp musical, I’m a sucker for it!

Monroe and Russell were both widely praised for their performances, even by critics who weren’t otherwise impressed by the movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and I can see why. They’re both incredibly compelling, and they steal every scene. Monroe’s performance of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend is, as I said, iconic – I couldn’t look away! – which is how it came to inspire homages from performers like Beyonce, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue. That said, it shouldn’t overshadow the equally-brilliant performance by Russell, with her sharp wit and wry one-liners bringing a much-needed cleverness to an otherwise flimsy over-simplified story. The film doesn’t move as quickly as the book, much is lost in translation, but thanks to Monroe and Russell there are still many knowing nods and knee-slapping laughs to be had.

So, which was better, the movie or the book?

The book, definitely, but the movie was still great fun. Plus, with a run-time of 91 minutes, it’s the perfect lazy hungover Sunday film, one to watch when you don’t want your thinking meat to work too hard and you’re in the mood for some glitz and glamour.

Movie Review: Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

As our own world comes to increasingly resemble the dystopian futures described in post-apocalyptic speculative fiction novels, we’ll inevitably see more and more of those works emerge, just to remind us how truly fucked we are. This week, I read and reviewed Ray Bradbury’s iconic treatise on censorship and authoritarianism, Fahrenheit 451, and now I turn to the most recent movie version.

Before it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the arrival of HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 was heralded by a particularly eerie Tweet. It offered us the immortal tagline: “Fact. Fiction. It all burns.” Ramin Bahrani started developing this adaptation back in 2016, and last year it finally reached our screens. Mel Gibson was reportedly planning to direct, with Tom Cruise in the lead, but their conflicting schedules led them both to pull out; Brad Pitt was also briefly considered for the role. I, for one, am incredible glad the Calendar Gods that stymied those ideas, because I’m not sure I could have convinced myself to watch 100 full minutes of those ageing white dude-bros trying to save the future. As it stands, Bahrani ended up writing and directing the production, which was the best possible outcome for all involved.

His opening credits were genius: shot after shot of classic books and artworks distorting as they burn. It’s truly haunting watching Pride And Prejudice, As I Lay Dying, Lolita, Moby Dick, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Aeneid, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings get eaten up by flames, particularly when the images are interspersed with footage of Nazi book burnings. And if that’s not enough of a whammy, the credits give way to a really powerful shot of a man striking a match and staring into the flame. So, I think it’s already clear: I loved Bahrani’s direction. Later, he layered in these CCTV-like shots which chillingly reinforced the sense of everyone being surveilled, as a mechanism of control. Brilliant!

Just a few minutes in, it was obvious that Bahrani wasn’t sticking faithfully to Bradbury’s book. I mean, it’s hard to blame him – I know there are plenty of fans of the original material who would see me tarred and feathered for even suggesting this but I think the changes improved the story dramatically. Guy Montag (played by Michael B. Jordan) is no longer an oblivious middle-aged grunt with a miserable wife, but a young and energetic public figure, the face of the Firemen – and black. I debated whether to even bring this up, because it shouldn’t matter (and in an ideal world, it wouldn’t), but it’s important to celebrate filmmakers who get it right: the POC casting in this film was amazing, without the hollow ring of tokenism that so often plagues films trying desperately to appeal to “woke” audiences.



There’s plenty here for those audiences to sink their teeth in to, a whole new tree grown organically from the roots of Bradbury’s story under Bahrani’s tender loving care. Fahrenheit 451 is clearly heavily influenced by the success of Black Mirror, being very similar in tone and approach. I also noted several nods to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (the “FREEDOM IS CHOICE” mantra reminiscent of Orwellian slogans, and a secret diary hidden from an all-seeing household appliance), and also Huxley’s Brave New World (a populace mollified through medicated eye-drops). Given that these three books are often listed together as some kind of classic dystopian trifecta, the homages make sense. I appreciate that Bahrani didn’t shy away from the common ground.

The story is still set in an unspecified future time, after a Second Civil War, where books are banned but all information is now accessed through a state-controlled heavily-censored version of the internet called “The 9”. It’s basically a 24-hour news channel with a social media overlay. The imagery of “likes” and “stories” seemed a strong indication that the filmmakers intended to stay very faithful to Bradbury’s anti-mass media message, if not his plot. The firemen still burn books, as we know (but they call them “graffiti”), and Montag is their poster boy, unquestioningly spouting the party line at every opportunity.

It’s not just about physical books, though: the list of contraband has been expanded and updated for this century’s viewership. The Firemen also shut down people who upload electronic books and host them online (there’s a great visual of a fireman destroying a computer server with the old-fashioned technology of a strongly-wielded axe). These are electronic “burnings”, and the perpetrators (called “Eels”) are punished by having their online identities erased, which makes it practically impossible for them to function in the world.



When Montag starts to come around to the idea that, hey, maybe something’s hinkey with this whole set-up, we see that he has a stash – not of books, but of random ’90s crap: a cassette, a film reel, a computer mouse. It made me wonder whether they were perhaps diluting the censorship message too much, making it more about the technology and the mechanism of distribution rather than the power of knowledge and information itself. Montag does still steal a book, from the home of the old lady who chooses to burn with her book collection rather than live without them. He takes Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground, which seems fitting.

Montag’s disillusionment reaches fever pitch when he starts hanging out with Clarisse (played by Sofia Boutella). Ah, Clarisse! Believe it or not, she is given an actual back-story and some actual agency in this version of the story! Her Manic Pixie Dream Girl qualities in the book version irritated me to no end, so I literally fist-pumped when I realised Bahrani had taken a different approach for her character. Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 the movie is actually an informant, trying to get her own sentence for infractions reduced by feeding the Firemen information on where they can find the book-hoarding Eels. She tells Montag the true history of books and how they came to be banned, in direct contradiction to his boss Captain Beatty’s version of events. Montag’s all “Awesome, I’m on your side now, teach me how to read this book I stole from the lady you dobbed in!”, and away they go.

I’m not going to lie, Fahrenheit 451 on-screen is still a pretty dude-centric story, at least in the beginning. They cut out Montag’s wife, for one thing, so that halved the number of female characters drawn from the original book. Until about mid-way through, only Clarisse and a female news reporter were allowed to speak. Thankfully, in the second half, more female characters are introduced; not only do they get to speak, they sometimes get to speak to each other, and take on leadership roles – a vast improvement over Bradbury’s original version, don’t you think?



The movie also does a much better job of highlighting Montag’s hypocrisy. He beats up and burns book owners by day, then reads with Clarisse by night. It really only occurred to me while watching the film how sympathetic the book was to him – he really is a garbage person, all told. At least until he decides to go out, and help the rebels: they have a plan to encode books into DNA (“Omnis”), that will be reproduced and disseminated throughout the world through animals, making any attempt to censor or destroy them impossible.

I’m not going to pretend I completely loved and understood this whole “Omnis” plot point, but I decided to just go with it. The Eels implanted some poor bird with this magical book DNA, and it was Montag’s job to steal a transmitter that would allow them to track its flight to Canada (where books aren’t banned and forcing mutant birds to mate and spread isn’t illegal, just creepy). He pulls it off, in the sense that the bird gets away, but Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) shows up and he is pissed that his golden child has joined the Dark Side.

In this version, Beatty survives, but Montag doesn’t fare as well. Beatty literally incinerates him with his flame-thrower (and you thought your boss was bad!). I wanted to come up with a clever play-on-words about Montag dying by the flaming sword he lived by, but I couldn’t quite nail one down, so just pretend I used one here and chuckle appropriately. It’s a much more fitting and realistic ending for Montag, I think, but the true horror is tempered by the whole hope-springs-eternal thing, in the form of a magical mutant bird escaping safely…



My only real quibble with Fahrenheit 451 the movie was the fact that all the actors seemed to forget to react to the heat of the flames (and a lot of shit gets burned, so I noticed this every couple of minutes). I know it’s a post-apocalyptic future and everyone’s all hardened and everything, but sheesh – I reel when I open a gas oven! That shit is HOT! It’s normal to at least squirm a little when a house burns down around you.

But it would seem that reviewers and film critics took far more issue with Fahrenheit 451, and almost none of them liked it as much as I did. Rotten Tomatoes gives it an aggregated approval rating of just 35%, saying it “fails to burn as brightly as its classic source material”. Published reviews have been mixed at best, with most of them criticising Bahrani’s attempts to modernise the story for a contemporary audience. Fahrenheit 451 did get a handful of miscellaneous Emmy notifications, but won none of them. To be quite honest, I really don’t understand all the hate – I loved it!

So, which was better, the movie or book?

The movie. The movie, a hundred times over. I really didn’t love the book as much as I’d expected to, but the movie blew me away. It would seem that I’m out of step with the rest of the world – confessing to liking any movie more than the book is sacrilegious, and this one got more bad reviews than most – but I’m saying it loud and saying it proud. I’ll probably never flick through the pages of Fahrenheit 451 again, but I can’t wait to re-watch the movie with my husband and point out all my favourite bits again and again.



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