Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 2)

Cha-Ching! Best Book Bargains

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

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

Best Book Bargains - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula was one of my first bargain bin finds, and I walked home afterwards on cloud nine! I spied it at my local secondhand bookstore, marked at the princely sum of $3.

Dracula - Bram Stoker - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

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

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

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

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

Yes Please - Amy Poehler - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

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

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

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

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

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

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

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

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

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



7 Books You Can Read Over and Over Again

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

Books You Can Read Over and Over Again - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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

1984 – George Orwell

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

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

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

Harry Potter (Series) – J.K. Rowling

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

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

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

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



Remember These? Books From High School That You Should Revisit

I didn’t exactly hide the fact that I thought The Great Gatsby sucked. In fact, I disliked it so much that I spent a lot of time wondering why so many of my fellow students were forced to read it in high school (I have no idea how I escaped that particular rite of torture, I guess I’m just lucky). For a lot of us, being forced to read books in high school was the pits. It probably left a bad taste in your mouth when it comes to a lot of the classics on The List. After all, non-negotiable enforced reading isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying and engaging with a story. Plus, as teenagers, how many of us actually had the perspective to understand the themes in Gatsby – or, indeed, any of the other classics bestowed upon us by the evil overlords of English teaching departments? Still, we’re all older and wiser now, so maybe there’s some value in giving them a second chance. Here’s a list of books from high school that you should revisit.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

I had a quick peruse of the internet, and it would seem that a lot of other bloggers and experts agree with me: The Catcher in the Rye is definitely a book from high school that you should revisit as a grown up. I never actually read this one in high school either, but I reviewed it for Keeping Up With The Penguins and really enjoyed it. Sure, it’s a coming-of-age story, but Salinger didn’t actually intend for it to be a young adult novel so it’s certainly suitable for an adult audience. Holden Caulfield is a perfect caricature of every young man you’ve ever met, and if nothing else you get to enjoy that in a really patronising way (“ah, aren’t young people silly?”).

Looking For Alibrandi – Melina Marchetta

I know we probably couldn’t call it a “classic” by any means, but Looking For Alibrandi is the first book that comes to mind when I think about high school reading lists. Teachers always assigned this one thinking that we’d really relate to Josie’s struggles with family, identity, responsibility and culture. I’m not sure how much I could “relate” per se, but I did really enjoy it at the time, and I can tell you that it really holds up – even now, more than two decades after its publication. It’s a bit niche in the sense that it is very specific to the Australian context, so I have no idea whether international readers would be able to get into it. Still, anything’s worth a try! (And if you’re an international reader who’s given it a go, please let me know what you thought in the comments!)

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Now, more than ever, storytelling that explores our understanding of race and power is vital – regardless of whether you’re fourteen or forty. If you read To Kill A Mockingbird carefully, you’ll notice that, even though the story is mediated through the experiences of young people, Scout recounts it as an adult; it’s one long flashback, and a nifty narrative style. You’re in a position, as an adult, to pick up on things like that, and you’ll appreciate the prose all the more for it. Plus, you might want to give yourself a refresher if you’re planning to read Go Set A Watchman, set twenty years after the events in the original book.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is usually assigned in high schools to teach teenagers a valuable lesson about censorship and government power, but it’s about so much more than that (as Bradbury has said himself). You’ll find a lot more to chew on here when you revisit it as a grown up, and you don’t have an English teacher standing over your shoulder telling you what to look for. Bonus: it’s a short and easy read (most editions don’t run more than 150 pages), so even if you haven’t learned to love it with age, at least it will be over quick!

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

I don’t think I read The Crucible in high school, but I do recall watching the film; indeed, I got full marks on my assignment to write and perform a monologue from the perspective of one of the characters, so I remember it very fondly 😉 Given how many men have called out current events as being “witch hunts” over the past year, it’s great to take a look back at this fictionalised account of what went down in Salem. Or you know, you can try to read more into the allegory that Miller wrote into the story (you probably know what McCarthyism actually is now, so it’ll make a lot more sense).

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

I once heard an English teacher say that if she had to teach Lord Of The Flies one more time, she’d do something unseemly with that pig’s head. It is pretty ubiquitous in the classroom, presented as a kind of cautionary tale for kids that might think they can handle life without adult supervision. That much is clear to you as a teenager, but revisiting it as a grown up reveals so much more to the story. It’s definitely one to make you ponder the bigger issues of individual responsibility, groupthink, authority, humanity’s capacity for darkness… all that stuff we think we already know as teenagers, until we grow up and realise we don’t have a damn clue. Lord Of The Rings is good for all of that, trust me!

Revisiting books from high school is great; you enjoy them all the more, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be a test after. You might even get a nice nostalgic kick out of re-reading books that you first encountered as a wide-eyed impressionable youngster, and marvel at how much you’ve changed since then. Have you revisited any books from high school? Did you find any new favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or post your list over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read

There’s no use hiding it: we all pretend to have read books we really haven’t. Mark Twain once famously described a “classic” as a book that people praise and don’t read. These fibs aren’t such a big deal when you’re having a casual chat with your family over lunch, or talking to a stranger at a bus stop… but what about the high-stakes of a first date? Favourite books are a go-to conversation starter, but what if you’ve never read their beloved Hemingway or Faulkner? It could through your perceived compatibility with that hottie into peril. It’s fake-it-or-make-it time! To save you dashing to the bathroom to read a Wikipedia summary, I’ve put together a cheat sheet: here’s what to say to your Tinder date about books you never read.

What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Don’t say: “It’s all about the monster within, you know?”
Do say: “Ah, the prototype for doppelgänger literature!”

Luckily, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is popular and enduring enough to have become a cultural catchphrase, so you probably know more about it than you think. It’s a super-short novel (closer to a novella), and yet it’s packed to the rafters with symbolic meaning, so it can be described as a metaphor for just about anything you want. Bonus points if you reference my favourite interpretation: that Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and the emergence of Mr Hyde was a metaphor for his rampant gay sex drive. You might even get the chance to take the intellectual upper-hand if your date calls it “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”; Stevenson intentionally (and infuriatingly) excluded the preposition from its official title.

I’ve actually posted a full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde just this week, so you can check that out if you need more detail.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

Don’t say: “I just love how Hemingway would show, not tell!”
Do say: “While it lacks Hemingway’s characteristic sparseness, it’s a fascinating insight into the changing role of men after the First World War, isn’t it?”

The Sun Also Rises isn’t my favourite from Hemingway’s collected works, but a lot of people love it so it might crop up in conversation. If you can, steer the conversation towards the origins of the story in Hemingway’s own life. No one’s quite sure whether Hemingway was rejected from the military due to poor eyesight, or whether he just wussed out of being a soldier and snagged a position as an ambulance driver instead; either way, themes of rejection and cowardice and male insecurity are heavy in all of his work. The Sun Also Rises is a “roman à clef” (a true story dressed up as fiction) based on the lives of Hemingway and his friends in the “Lost Generation”.

Hint: Hemingway is famously nicknamed “Papa”, so you’ll sound like a real literary insider if you call him that now and then.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Don’t say: “That’s the one about the whale, right?”
Do say: “Although his masterpiece is a harder slog for the contemporary reader, Melville was undoubtedly superior to Hawthorne.”

If your Tinder date says that Moby Dick is their favourite book, you can be pretty confident you’ve found someone who’s super patient and very persistent. After all, they finished and (apparently) loved a 600-page epic set on board a 19th century whaling ship. Melville experimented with perspective, narrative technique, chronology, and just about everything else that makes a book a book, so Moby Dick is a really tricky read. Like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there are so many different meanings and interpretations of Moby Dick that you can make up pretty much anything you like and it will probably sound alright. If you want to seem like you really have your finger on the pulse, talk about the significance of the work in the present-day context of climate change. Captain Ahab’s attempts to bring the white whale into submission drove him mad and ultimately led to his demise, which could be a metaphor for humanity’s struggle to control and dominate the environment.

Ulysses (James Joyce)

Don’t say: “It’s, erm, a really hard read, isn’t it?”
Do say: “The focus on his delivery and his experimentation with form and style have really detracted from a true understanding of the work in the popular consciousness.”
Alternative do say: “How about I buy us another round?”

If you ask them, the Ulysses-lover will probably tell you that they are also patient and persistent, but beware: you might find that they’re pretentious and a little bit snobby as well. Ulysses is notorious for being one of the most difficult English-language books in the history of literature, and I see no shame in ‘fessing up that you’ve never read it (and probably never will). If you’re really determined to show off for them, however, you could ask them how they think it compares to Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s novel was, in effect, a response to Joyce’s Ulysses, mirroring its style and form. Both take place over a single day, written in a hectic stream-of-consciousness style, focusing primarily on the lives of two central characters while others weave in and out.

Alternatively, you can simply insist on buying another round an change the subject entirely. It’s up to you.

As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)

Don’t say: “There’s so many different narrators, it’s too hard to keep track!”
Do say: “Faulkner is so skillful in the way he truly immerses the reader in the culture and vernacular of communities completely foreign to the mainstream.”

Faulkner famously claimed that As I Lay Dying was written and published in a single draft. He said that he wrote the whole thing in six weeks, while working his day job in a power plant. Either he’s a real show-off, or a damn dirty liar. Still, he’s probably the most renowned author of the Southern Gothic genre, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature. As I Lay Dying tells the story of the death and funeral of a Southern matriarch, through the perspective of fifteen different characters in her family and community. The overriding message is that dying can be a relief from the suffering one experiences in life, and families are bonkers.

Bonus tip: pretty much every Faulkner novel features a death and/or a funeral of some kind, so if your date starts talking about any of his other works, just ask him what he thought about Faulkner’s depiction of funeral rites in that context. Works like a charm! Plus, you can read my review of As I Lay Dying right here, if you want to make sure you’ve got it locked and loaded.

If you’re wondering what to say to your Tinder date and the book they mention isn’t listed here, do what I always do when I’m stuck: ask a lot of questions. People love talking about themselves and why they love what they love, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get them on a roll. Make sure you come back here as soon as the date is over and let me know which one I missed, so I can update this post accordingly! (You could also put out a cry for help over at KUWTP on Facebook!)




This Guy!: The Most Unlikeable Narrators in Literature

It’s all well and good for an author to write a book with a likeable narrator, don’t you think? Kind, empathic, brave, warm, honest, well-meaning, and funny narrators jump off the page. They’re the type of people we aspire to be, or at least befriend. On the other hand, it takes a special set of skills to write a book from the point of view of a truly despicable person. Unlikeable narrators do things that we readers would never dream of doing, admit to things that make our skin crawl, and (in the case of narrators that are both unlikeable and unreliable) make us question whether we should even believe the story they’re telling us. And yet, we don’t throw the book across the room. Sometimes, we even enjoy them enough to list them among our favourites, or chalk them up as classics of literature.

I thought about that a lot as I read A Clockwork Orange for this week’s review. I like to think I’m generally a pretty forgiving reader, but there are least a few narrators that have really horrified, disgusted and angered me. So I’ve put together a Keeping Up With The Penguins list of the most unlikeable narrators in literature. Prepare to raise your hackles…

The Most Unlikeable Narrators in Literature - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alex (A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess)

If you’ve seen the film adaptation, you may think you’re familiar enough with the misdeeds of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Let me tell you’re now: you’re in no way prepared for reading chapter after chapter of extreme graphic violence from Alex’s own perspective. Alex is the instigator of vicious assaults, violent rapes, and all manner of hideously anti-social behaviour. What makes it worse is that he knows all the while that what he’s doing is wrong (“you can’t have a society with everybody behaving in my manner of the night”), and yet he’s simultaneously full of self-pity and wide-eyed confusion as to why anyone would want to “cure” him. It all makes for an extremely confronting read.

Humbert Humbert (Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov)

Humbert Humbert was the first narrator who made me feel truly disgusted, as far as I can recall. Bear in mind that he is a sexual predator who fetishises the twelve-year-old Lolita, trying desperately to convince the reader that it was in fact she who seduced him (ick) and that his love for her is simply mischaracterised as perverse. It is a true credit to Nabokov that Lolita remains a fascinating, beautiful read – albeit one narrated by a truly abhorrent man. (Humbert Humbert got what was coming to him in the end, though, and that always feels good.)

John Self (Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis)

John Self is perhaps a lesser-known example of the unlikeable narrator, but he is well deserving of his place on the list nonetheless. Amis had his work cut out for him in Money: A Suicide Note, crafting a protagonist that captured all of the hedonism and excess of the late 20th century. John Self eats, smokes, drinks, and fucks himself into oblivion for the entire duration of the novel. His hubris is (of course) his downfall; his business associate swindles him, and his entire orgy of consumption collapses around his ears in the end. John Self is not the kind of man you would want to invite to dinner, but Money: A Suicide Note is artfully written.

Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth)

Alexander Portnoy is often lumped into the same category as John Self, but really he’s more of a “love him or hate him” kind of guy. Portnoy’s Complaint reads as a monologue of Alexander’s frustrations, as described to his psychoanalyst. He describes his life as being akin to living “in the middle of a Jewish joke”, complete with a domineering mother, an urgent sex drive, and a heaping serve of guilt. It’s hard to look away, the obscenity certainly draws your eye, but it’s equally tough to shake the nagging repulsion one feels for Alexander.

Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger)

Personally, I kind of liked Holden Caulfield, but that was mostly due to the nostalgic kick I got out of his character being so similar to the angry teenage boys I knew growing up. Holden is miserable, self-pitying, angry, vague, prone to flights of fancy, and – most of all – he shits on everything. In The Catcher in the Rye, he represents everything that everyone dislikes about self-centered teenagers, and his unrelenting whinge-fest can certainly grate on the nerves. He lacks the true darkness of other, more mature characters on this list, but he is certainly unlikeable in his own way.

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis)

I would be remiss if I didn’t include Patrick Bateman on this list of unlikeable narrators, he’s basically the poster-child for them: detail-oriented, stylish, aloof, and filled to the brim with murderous rage. He has a real penchant for torture, dreams up particularly gruesome methods to kill, and to top it all off he targets the most vulnerable women he can find… or does he? We never quite get to the bottom of Bateman’s psychopathology, and the reader’s frustration at the end of the novel is probably enough on its own to make him deeply unlikeable (you know, in the event that you can get past the whole chainsaw-a-sex-worker-to-death thing).

So, why do we even read these books? These are no-good, very-bad people, after all. I think, in large part, it’s because we find them interesting. They’re so far removed from what we experience every day, the types of people we know and love, and that makes them fascinating. What do you think? Do you have a “favourite” unlikeable narrator? Let me know in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



What Book Makes You Ugly Cry?

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I made a confession: I actually got a little teary reading the book for this week’s review! Still Alice is the heart-wrenching story of a woman losing her mind to early-onset Alzheimer’s. I was fine for the most part, until her final student wrote her a letter to thank her for teaching him so well and remind her of all the wonderful things she had done…! Until I found my eyes welling up, I had been pretty sure I was made of stone 😉 It’s super-rare that a book moves me to tears, but I kind of love it when they do. Is there anything more satisfying than a good ol’ cry?

This week, I asked Keeping Up With The Penguins readers what book makes them ugly cry. The answers are really surprising!

What Book Makes You Ugly Cry? Black text in text bubble overlaid on a photo of a woman resting her head on her knees as though crying - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

OK, fine, I wasn’t really surprised by this one. A book that chronicles the relationship of two teens living (and dying) with cancer is pretty much guaranteed to make most readers tear up at some point. In fact, John Green seems to have picked a topic for The Fault In Our Stars specifically designed to pull on the maximum number of heart strings. A doomed romance between two youngsters who should have the rest of their lives ahead of them? Next stop, Ugly-Cry City!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Now, this is more surprising territory! The Bell Jar is on The List and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long time – now even more so, knowing there’s a chance it might thaw my icy heart and draw forth a few tears! Plath’s real-life story is sad enough (she died by suicide barely a month after The Bell Jar was published), and this – her best-known work – draws a lot from her experiences of mental illness.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling

I chuckled appreciatively when one lovely reader confessed to crying in Harry Potter – specifically, the scene where Dumbledore dies (and no, I’m not giving a spoiler alert for that, because if you haven’t read Harry Potter by now…). I don’t remember crying myself, but surely I must have – what kind of monster doesn’t get sniffly when Dumbledore is murdered by Snape… and then again, when we find out the heart-breaking reason why?

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

You might have noticed a bit of a trend emerging here: a lot of the books that make us ugly cry are written for and marketed to young adults. Why is that? Whatever the reason, according to KUWTP readers, we can count E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars among them. This thriller follows the Sinclairs, a wealthy family, as they gather on a private island each summer… but there’s a dark secret (isn’t there always?). This one is also on The List – review coming soon!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Most of us had the privilege of reading Harper Lee’s essential, heart-wrenching classic in high-school (… except for me, but it’s also on The List, so I’ll be making up for lost time soon enough!). Through the eyes of Scout, the young daughter of a criminal defense attorney in 1930s Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird depicts the story of a black man accused of raping a white woman. If the beautiful simplicity of Lee’s prose doesn’t make you cry, you’re guaranteed to at least feel something for the victims of racial oppression in America’s Deep South.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Jumping forward to a contemporary setting, what could be more likely to induce an ugly-cry than a touching father-son story told against the backdrop of the Taliban regime’s ascendancy in Afghanistan? That’s what you’ll find in The Kite Runner. It’s a multi-dimensional story of guilt and redemption, universal themes plonked into the middle of a setting that most of us struggle to imagine. More than one KUWTP reader has found some ugly tears here!

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

And here’s one for the dog-lovers! I’ve got to admit, I haven’t found the courage to read The Art of Racing in the Rain yet – even though I love animals in literature, stories about dogs just pull on my heartstrings too damn hard and I’m a mess for weeks afterwards. According to the blurbs, it follows the story of a race-car driver and his dog; the dog believes that he can be reincarnated as a human in his next life, and sets about doing everything he can to prepare himself for the transition. I can feel myself tearing up just thinking about it…

What book makes you ugly cry? Have I missed your special favourite? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


Who’s a Good Boy?: The Best Animals in Literature

If you’re joining us here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, chances are you’ve long outgrown The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s a sad fact of life for animal-lovers that our favourite furry friends are usually only given star billing in books for children. Animals – especially the ones that talk, wear pants, befriend humans, and/or do magic – are left behind as we age. And yet, animals were once the central focus of storytelling. Look at the stories of the Dreamtime, or more recently our mate Aesop’s fables: animals feature prominently as heroes and villains, plots center entirely around the relationships between them, and their narrative arcs are never questioned or reasoned away as childish fancy.

Luckily, there are still many authors giving animals a look-in, even in books written for grown-ups. In celebration of this week’s review, let’s take a look at some of the best animals in literature.

The Best Animals in Literature - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick (Moby Dick – Herman Melville)

Of course, we must start with Moby Dick, the albino leviathan who drove Captain Ahab to madness. Moby Dick is widely considered to be one of the most significant non-human characters of all time, and this is largely due to his chameleon-like symbolic attributions. The gigantic white sperm-whale might represent the power of nature, the ravages of colonialism, the futility of our quest to understand God through religion, or about a dozen other things depending how you read the book. Whatever your fancy, I think we can all agree that in the end it’s nice to see the whale get a win, dragging the obsessive and vengeful Ahab to his death, entangled in his own harpoon. Well done, Moby D! Well done! (I’ve reviewed the book in full here if you want to know more.)

Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White)

I know we’re supposed to be focused on books for adults here (and, come to that, I know Charlotte isn’t technically an animal), but even grown-ups can enjoy the heartwarming tale of an intelligent spider saving her friend (Wilbur, the pig) from becoming breakfast. Charlotte weaves special messages into her web, at great personal effort, and Wilbur repays the favour by helping to protect Charlotte’s egg sac. Who can resist such a touching display of cross-species friendship? If you left this one behind in primary school, I strongly recommend going back to revisit it; if nothing else, the nostalgic kicks will make it worth your while.

Ghost (A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin)

Everyone comes to Game of Thrones for the dragons, but the direwolves are the unsung heroes. Ghost was the runt of his litter, small and white and mute, but under the care of the similarly-beleaguered Jon Snow he grows into a strong and powerful companion. He saves the day on more than one occasion, usually when you’ve lost all hope. George R. R. Martin famously kills off his human characters with such speed and cruelty that a lot of readers abandon his work early on, but so far most of the animals have met a kinder fate. At this point, he can do what he likes with Jon and the rest of them, as far as I’m concerned – on the condition that he leaves Ghost and the other direwolves alone.

Mr Toad (The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame)

Who doesn’t love a classic cocky rogue? Albeit, this one’s a toad, but still! Mr Toad is resourceful, intelligent, and possibly the only one of his kind that hasn’t made me recoil in disgust (no way would you find me kissing a toad in the hopes of finding Prince Charming, so not worth it!). Plus, it turns out a toad can make tweed suits look good – who’dathunkit? Mr Toad is, of course, surrounded by a host of other charming animal characters (including Ratty, and Mole) in Grahame’s celebrated classic, making The Wind in the Willows a huge bang for the animal-lover’s buck!

Toto (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum)

I have always maintained that Toto is the superior character in Baum’s fantasy world, and I stand by it. My insistence might be hard to understand if you’ve only seen the film (most people don’t even realise that it was based on a series of books), but even next to Judy Garland Toto was a total bad-ass. He was a true and loyal friend to Dorothy – indeed, the only one she seemed to have at home in Kansas. He totally saved the day when he escaped from the clutches of the Wicked Witch, guiding Dorothy’s friends back to her so she could be freed too. Plus – bonus point! – it’s revealed later in the books that Toto had the power to talk all along, he just didn’t feel like it so he never did, which makes him pretty much the queen of sassy animals.

And there you have it: yes, I snuck a couple of children’s books in there, but there’s definitely plenty to keep the adults entertained as well. I personally get far more emotionally attached to the animals in books than I do the humans, and their character arcs become the most important aspect of my enjoyment of the book. What about you? Who else should be on this list of the best animals in literature? Let me know in the comments below (or answer over at KUWTP on Facebook!).




Do You Read The Introduction First?

Pick up any classic book from a reputable publishing house, and you’re (almost) guaranteed to find in the front some combination of a foreword, preface, introduction, note on the text, chronological note, a further reading list… hell, Wuthering Heights even had a genealogical table, to help you keep track of all the characters that married their cousins. Ultimately, it’s all just commentary – sometimes written by the author themselves, sometimes written by editors or academics or experts – included to enhance your understanding of the book. (You’ll notice that usually these sections are numbered with numerals; page “1” of the book is the first page of the story itself. For simplicity, we’re going to call all of the Roman numerals stuff the “introduction” here.)

So, this leads me to the $64,000 question: do you read the introduction before you read the book?

Do You Read The Introduction First? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Case For Reading The Introduction

The main purpose of an introduction is to provide context for the story, but it can achieve that in a bunch of different ways. For instance, the introduction to my edition of The Scarlet Letter provides some background information about Hawthorne’s inspiration for the story, drawn from his very own family (check out my full review for the deets). Other introductions might provide context by giving you an idea of the time period in which the author lived, the education he or she received, the political situation where he or she lived, and so on. It might sound boring as all hell, but don’t underestimate how much better the story can be when you understand where it’s coming from.

An introduction can also point out aspects of the story that you might not otherwise notice. It might be the writer’s style, the way they use language, the unique ways they tweak grammar, what they do with their characters, how the setting they chose relates to the story… Sure, sometimes it can sound like a bunch of pretentious guff, but it can bring to light things you wouldn’t know to look for.

The people who write introductions are experts. They’ve probably studied the author – or sometimes even just that book in particular – for years. This can be both a pro and a con, I suppose. Sometimes it means that they talk a lot of smack that goes right over your head, and you end up either Googling or ignoring half of what they say. Still, even if that is the case, you can bet that they’ll provide some interesting tidbits that will come in handy later on. Some introductions (or parts of them) are written by the author themselves (as was the case with my edition of Brave New World, for instance); it can be really interesting to know how they feel about the work in retrospect, and what they want you to think about it. You don’t get that kind of insight anywhere else.

Ultimately, being handed a guide about what to expect makes me feel smarter as I’m reading, and who doesn’t want to feel smart? I know what to look out for, and which parts have special significance. Plus, if I reach a section that’s really confusing or seems out of place, coming armed with some context clues (courtesy of the introduction) helps me navigate my way out of it.

The Case Against Reading The Introduction

I always thought it was pretty self-explanatory that you should read the introduction first. I mean, it introduces the test, right? If you weren’t supposed to read it first, why would they put it there? It’s only recently I’ve learned that there are stacks of people who ignore this basic logic and just skip right ahead to the story. Why?

The most common reason against reading the introduction first is spoilers. If you’re the kind of person that likes being surprised by the twists and turns in a story, or figuring out for yourself how the story is going to end, the introduction is likely going to ruin all of that for you. Most of the introductions assume that the reader is already familiar with the book, or at the very least doesn’t mind knowing what is going to happen before they read it. Comments sections on bookseller websites are filled with complaints about spoiler-ridden introductions. Some publishing houses are nice enough to include a note before the introduction that says “this introduction discusses plot elements in detail”, or something like that – it’s essentially a fancy spoiler warning.

Even when the introduction falls short of outright spoiling the story, it can definitely colour your impressions of the story as you read it. If, for instance, you learn in the introduction that the author has a reputation for being super wordy and long-winded, you brain is going to be primed to look out for that as you read the book. Chances are, if you hadn’t read the introduction, you might not have noticed at all, and maybe you would have enjoyed the book more.

Despite my brilliant logical deduction about the introduction coming first, it is really written as an afterthought, so I suppose that should be taken into account. Introductions are penned by people who have already read the book (many, many times over), and they’re well-familiar with the characters and the plot. If it’s the first (or even the second, or the third) time you’re reading it, you’re not on that level yet and the writer didn’t introduce the text with you in mind. In that sense, reading the introduction after you’ve finished the book seems the most logical thing to do.

So, what’s the answer?

Well-written and easy-to-understand introductions can be really valuable, but it’s basically up to you when you read them. Whether it’s before or after the book in question, you’ll hopefully get something out of it and it will help you enjoy the book all the more. Personally, I’m going to continue reading them before, perhaps you might get more value out of reading them after… Maybe you could get the best of both worlds by reading the first few chapters as a “test run” before deciding whether you want to read the introduction before you carry on. You could try skimming the pages of the introduction, just stopping for anything that catches your eye, before you dive in. There isn’t really a “best” way to do it, only what works best for you. Isn’t that nice? 😉

What about you? Do you read the introduction first? Has anything in this article changed your mind or inspired you to try it differently? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



What’s Your Desert Island Book?

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’m tackling one of those dinner party questions that haunts all bookworms: what’s your desert island book? I was inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir (Wild, I reviewed it this week); she trekked over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, carrying with her Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language (which she described as her “religion”), and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which, incidentally, I recently reviewed), among others. It led me to think long and hard about what book I’d want with me if I were lost in the wilderness. I asked KUWTP readers this very question a couple of weeks ago (by the way, are you following us on Facebook and Instagram?), and got some fascinating responses!

It’s tough enough to imagine a situation where you’re stuck on a desert island indefinitely, with just a single book – but there are many factors to consider. Do you take your favourite book? Do you take a really heavy read, one that you’ve been putting off, so that you can capitalise on all that uninterrupted reading time? Maybe you want to choose a really light and funny book that will take your mind off your troubles. Of course, you could think laterally, and take a really thick book with lots of pages, so you can pull out as many as you need to use as kindling for a fire. The KUWTP community came up with a bunch of options for each, so let’s take a look at the definitive KUWTP Desert Island Book List.

What's Your Desrt Island Book? - black text in a square speech bubble overlaid on an image of palm trees, sand and sea - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ulysses – James Joyce

This one was my idea, mostly because I suspect that being trapped alone on a desert island, with no other entertainment, might be the only circumstance under which I could motivate myself to finish the notoriously unreadable Ulysses. Unfortunately for me, it ended up on The List, but I’m putting it off as long as I can (I’ll let you know as soon as the review is up, wish me luck!). Still, I wasn’t the only one to nominate Joyce’s seminal work as my desert island book for that reason, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone!

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote was the most popular choice, which took me by surprise! A whole bunch of readers chose this weighty 17th century tome (most editions run to almost 1,000 pages), out of the blue as best I could tell. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though – I later learned that Don Quixote is the best-selling single-volume book of all time. With over 500 million copies in circulation, it seems inevitable that at least a few would end up on desert islands…

Collected Works – William Shakespeare

There were a few creative “cheat” choices (among them the Harry Potter series, the New York Trilogy, and the collected works of Charles Dickens), but I think this one technically passes free and clear because it can frequently be found in a single volume (indeed, I own two of them). The Collected Works of William Shakespeare would certainly keep you going for a while, and it covers all manner of genres and storylines, so you can pick whatever you’re in the mood for: comedy, history, tragedy, romance…

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

I loved this suggestion, purely for the irony: stuck on a desert island, with nothing to read but a book about a bunch of boys stuck on a desert island (that ends pretty badly to boot). Ha! If nothing else, Lord Of The Flies would make a good what-not-to-do manual. Fingers crossed the KUWTP readers that chose this for their desert island read wouldn’t take the story too literally (lest a few pigs meet unkind ends)…

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

As one reader cleverly deduced, one of the most distressing parts of being stuck on a desert island would surely be the intolerable heat. Thus, ever so wisely, she named Wuthering Heights as her desert island book. A story full of chilly winter nights on sweeping moors, complete with howling winds and stiff breezes, would be the perfect antidote to scorching island sun. I almost considered taking this answer for my own, because I didn’t love Wuthering Heights the first time around, and I’ve been meaning to re-read it – deserted on an island would be the perfect opportunity!

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

This was, undoubtedly, the cutest choice for a desert island book! Charlotte’s Web would be the perfect cosy, feel-good read, full of childhood nostalgia, to comfort you in your lonely hours. Plus, if I had the chance to ask the desert-island-book-fairy for an audiobook, I’d definitely want the version read by E.B. White himself – could there be anything better?

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

Now, this one came out of left field, but the more I looked at it, the more sense it made. A dear friend of mine (who is also, of course, a dedicated KUWTP reader) said that she’d choose Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram – an Australian novel, published in 2003. It tells the story of a convicted bank robber and heroin addict, who manages to escape prison and flee to Mumbai, India. Coming in at some 900 pages, it’s another desert island book that would keep you entertained for quite a while, if the rescue boat is slow in getting to you. In the end, I had to concede, it’s an excellent call!

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

I saved my favourite choice for last: Samuel Beckett’s tragi-comedy, Waiting For Godot. This play tells the story of two characters who are waiting for the arrival of a bloke named Godot (thus, the title – der). The ultimate joke is, of course, that he never turns up. Perhaps, if I were actually in the desert-island situation, a book that so closely mirrors my own experience of waiting for rescue without a happy ending wouldn’t be so great for my mental health… but as it stands, I think it’s a fucking hilarious answer, and I’m going to steal it for my own from now on.

So, what’s your desert island book? What do you think of the ones suggested here? Let me know in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


Songs Inspired by Classic Literature

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed the Brontë classic Wuthering Heights. Until I finally got around to reading it for this project, all I knew about the book had been drawn from the lyrics of the Kate Bush song of the same name (spoiler alert: they’re not the same thing). It got me to thinking: what other songs have been inspired by classic literature?

Songs Inspired by Classic Literature - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1984 – David Bowie

Inspired By: 1984 – George Orwell

This song – along with many others from the same album (Diamond Dogs) – was actually intended for a musical based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel. Bowie scrapped the project after Orwell’s widow raised objections.

You’ve read it in the tea leaves
And the tracks are on TV
Beware the savage jaw of 1984

Soma – The Strokes

Inspired By: Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

It would seem that classic dystopian novels are great sources of inspiration for musicians. “Soma” is the drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, used to placate and control the population. The same fictional drug has also been referenced by Smashing Pumpkins, deadmau5, and others.

Soma is what they would take
When hard times opened their eyes

Off To The Races – Lana Del Rey

Inspired By: Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Lana Del Rey’s music famously draws frequently draws from Nabakov’s novel, which centered around an older man’s obsession with his beautiful teenage stepdaughter. This song is particularly notable, though, in that it cites “light of my life, fire of my loins”, a line taken verbatim from the opening passage of Lolita.

My old man is a bad man
But I can’t deny the way he holds my hand
And he grabs me, he has me by my heart

Bonus: Lolita is also referenced in the ’80s classic “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police. In that track, they spoke from the perspective of the older man, likening his desire to that of Nabakov’s narrator.

It’s no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov

Tom Joad (Parts 1 & 2) – Woody Guthrie

Inspired By: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Guthrie’s songs, released on the album “Dust Bowl Ballads” the year after The Grapes of Wrath was published, focus on the life of the protagonist Tom Joad, after he is paroled from prison.

Tom Joad got out of the old McAlester Pen
There he got his parole
After four long years on a man killing charge
Tom Joad came a-walkin’ down the road, poor boy

Love Song for a Vampire – Annie Lennox

Inspired By: Dracula – Bram Stoker

This track was not only inspired by Bram Stoker’s gothic novel, but it was even used as the theme for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation of the same work.

It beats for you, it bleeds for you
It know not how it sound
For it is the drum of drums
It is the song of songs

I Am The Walrus – The Beatles

Inspired By: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

The “walrus” referred to in The Beatles’ 1967 song is actually taken from the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, which Carroll wrote. It featured in the second volume of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Alice Through The Looking Glass).

I am the egg man
They are the egg men
I am the walrus
Goo goo g’joob

John Lennon was reportedly dismayed to learn, some time after the song had been written and performed, that the walrus was in fact a villain in Carroll’s original poem.

China In Your Hand – T’Pau

Inspired By: Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

You might not have guessed it, if you’ve only heard the single re-recorded for radio release, but the original album version of this song is packed with references to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

It was a theme she had
On a scheme he had
Told in a foreign land
To take life on earth
To the second birth

Of course, this list could stretch out to hundreds or thousands. Do you have a favourite song inspired by a classic book? Let me know in the comments below (or share it with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).




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