Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 8)

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.



Movie Review: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Welcome, one and all, to the first in a new blog series for Keeping Up With The Penguins! All month long, I’ll be reviewing movie adaptations alongside the classic and best-seller books that inspired them. This week, I reviewed Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, and I was pretty spoiled for choice when it came to screen adaptations. It is, after all, one of the best-loved books in English literature, and we can’t help but translate it to the screen as often as possible. In the end, it was a toss-up between reviewing the classic BBC mini-series or the more recent movie version. I ended up going for Pride & Prejudice (2005), mostly out of laziness – a 129 minute film sucks up a lot less of your day than six hour-long episodes.

Pride & Prejudice stars Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet, and Matthew Macfayden as the romantic lead Mr Darcy. I can see how Colin Firth would have made a better Darcy, but in my view Knightley was a practically-perfect Lizzie, exactly as I’d imagined her in the book. Plus, she was fresh off the back of the success of Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates Of The Caribbean. Director Joe Wright said that’s pretty much why he chose her; her star-power allowed him to cast a relative unknown as the male lead, and kept the marketing team happy. I can’t work out whether that’s a compliment or an insult to all involved…

And an important note at the outset: I know this is a historical film, but I refuse to nit-pick matters of period accuracy. Reviews that get stuck into “but the soldiers wouldn’t have had yellow embroidery on their jackets that year!” or “but that type of flower wasn’t introduced until 50 years later!” are boring as heck, and I won’t be one of them.

That said, as much as historical accuracy is off the table, story accuracy remains the centerpiece. When you’re adapting, as I said, one of the best-loved books in English literature, the stakes for remaining faithful to the original material while simultaneously making a great film for modern audiences get super-high. That happy duty fell to screenwriter Deborah Moggach (with a little help from her friend, the incredible Emma Thompson). At first, she tried to stay as faithful to Austen as possible, and she really put in the work, writing ten drafts over the course of two years. She focused in particular on trying to keep as much of the original dialogue as she could. When Wright came on board as director, he gently cajoled her into making a few small changes: adding a couple scenes from perspectives other than Lizzie’s, for instance, and tweaking the timeline. It was a pretty bold move on his part, given that he hadn’t actually read Pride And Prejudice before he saw one of the script’s early iterations…



Anyway, this version, Pride & Prejudice, is set in 1797, a bit earlier than most other adaptations (that usually place it in 1813, the year that the book was first published). From what I can tell, that decision was based almost purely on the fact that Wright hated nineteenth-century fashion. He also wanted this film to look a bit more earthy and rural, so there’s a lot of mud on hems and farm animals wandering about. Those factors combined helped Pride & Prejudice stand out among the slew of Austen adaptations in the ’90s and ’00s, which had presented much cleaner and more refined versions of the period drama.

I found that the movie skipped over a lot of the subtleties of the various political negotiations that took place in the marriage market, but perhaps to be expected in the medium of film. Wright had a lot less time to work with than the BBC adaptation, which was three times as long; he once said that Pride & Prejudice is “about Elizabeth and Darcy, following them, and anything that detracts or diverts you from that story is what you have to cut”. This means that the film really emphasises the romantic and comedic elements, and downplays Austen’s social commentary – whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing I suppose depends on which aspect of her work you like the best. They did have to take the time to do things like explain in the dialogue what an “entailed estate” means, because films don’t have footnotes, and that made me laugh.

I know Knightley is the star, with her sassy forthright iteration of Lizzie Bennet, but it was really the supporting cast that stole the show. Kelly Reilly abso-fucking-lutely nailed Miss Bingley! She’s snarky, she’s nasty, she’s snobby, all to great effect – even I found her intimidating, from the comfort of my own 21st century couch. And Tom Hollander as Mr Collins had me in hysterics! Again, his character was exaggerated – he was more awkward, more oblivious, more snivelling than he came across in writing – but he did it so bloody well. Hats off to both of them!



Actually, every character was exaggerated, almost a caricature of their book-selves. Lydia, in particular, seemed a lot more childish. I mean, in the book she was hardly a calculating femme fatale, but she was definitely a bit more worldly than Movie Lydia who got swept away in the illusion of a fairytale romance, giggling all the while. The irony is that Jena Malone, who played Lydia, was actually older than Knightley and most of the other Bennet sisters at the time of filming – movie magic strikes again! And, of course, I can’t neglect to mention Judi Dench’s stunning performance as the indomitable Lady Catherine de Bourgh; apparently, Wright convinced her to join the cast by writing her a letter that said “I love it when you play a bitch. Please come and be a bitch for me.” And she delivered!

On the whole, it was a very theatrical retelling of Austen’s best-known novel, but it stayed quite faithful to her story. They changed the “feel”, for lack of a better term, but not what actually happened in the narrative. For time and convenience, sure, they cut a few scenes and some minor characters, but none of the major plot points were altered. Quite a feat, as far as I’m concerned!

That’s not to say I didn’t have a few quibbles. My favourite line in the whole novel, where Darcy offers a distressed Lizzie a wine, didn’t end up in Pride & Prejudice, which I consider to be a huge oversight. And their first dance featured a bit of camera trickery whereby everyone else in the room literally disappeared, which I thought was a bit heavy-handed. Those minor cock-ups, however, pale in comparison to Lizzie’s horrible line in the big romantic climax, when she meets Darcy in the mist:

Your Hands Are Cold - Pride & Prejudice 2005 - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Your hands are cold” she bleats, ugh! It’s an abomination, an insult to Austen, and no matter how good the rest of the movie was, all involved in bringing that line to life should be made to sit in the time-out corner and think about what they’ve done.

And thank goodness I saw the U.K. version, where the final scene shows Mr Bennet giving his consent to Lizzie and Darcy’s marriage. Apparently, the U.S. release added an extra “and they lived happily ever after” husband-and-wife-smoochy-smoochy shot after that, and I literally would have thrown up in my mouth. Such a shame to end an otherwise good film on bum notes…



But let’s not linger on such unpleasant matters! Pride & Prejudice was made on a (relative shoestring) budget of $28 million. It wound up raking in approximately $121 million total. Its success was hardly surprising, given the trend set by Romeo + Juliet and Shakespeare In Love, and other extremely popular Austen adaptations. There was a push for an Austen Revival at the time, and Pride & Prejudice rode that wave, trying to capture a younger audience; in fact, it was marketed as “brought to you by the produces of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually“, before Austen’s name was even mentioned.

The film was released in fifty-nine countries in 2005-06, and became the 41st highest-grossing film internationally that year. Its appeal went beyond the popular, too, and it earned four Academy Award nominations (including Best Actress for Knightley). Despite the fact that Austen adaptations will always ignite strong feelings regarding accuracy and faithfulness, this one was undoubtedly a success on all fronts.

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

Through gritted teeth, I’ll say the book. The movie was great, and I really enjoyed it, but really the best part of Austen for me is her political and social commentary, and that’s something the movie really skates over. If you enjoy Austen for the romance, this movie should be a winner for you!

But probably no one will ever enjoy it as much as the woman in Chile who, Netflix reported, watched the film 278 times over the course of a single year. That’s a true fan, right there…



7 Best Book Dedications

Here’s a history lesson for you: the tradition of book dedications dates back centuries, to when authors would use the opportunity to suck-up to their patrons or elicit money from wealthy supporters of the arts by placing a few kind words alongside their name in the front of every copy of their book. Virgil dedicated some of his works to his patron, Maecenas. Jane Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, because she’d been a bit too critical of him in the public forum and one of his circle “suggested” she best make it up to him. Using a book dedication for a personal expression of love or gratitude is a relatively recent idea (as is the boring cliche of using codes, initials, or in-jokes to mask the message’s true meaning). Luckily, lots of brilliant writers have found fun ways to make the convention their own. Heck, sometimes the dedications are better than the book! Here are seven of the best book dedications I’ve found…

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The Steel Tsar – Michael Moorcock

“To my creditors, who remain a permanent source of inspiration.”

The Steel Tsar (Michael Moorcock)

In the tradition of those writers centuries ago, who created dedications to honour their patrons (without whom they surely would have starved), Michael Moorcock offered a contemporary twist in the front of his book The Steel Tsar. I think every struggling artist can appreciate this pithy one-liner, and the way it captures the ever-pressing drive to create fuelled by a need to simply pay the bills.

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

“To Frank O’Connor and Nathaniel Branden.”

Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)

Ayn Rand gets the gong for the most courageous dedication: she devoted Atlas Shrugged to her husband, and her lover – two different men! In her author bio, she added that her husband (Frank O’Connor) had the values of character she sought in a man, while her lover (Nathaniel Branden) was her “intellectual heir”, an ideal reader with as rational and independent a mind as she could conceive of, whom she met through a fan letter he sent her. In later editions, after 1968, Nathaniel’s name and the sentence describing him were removed. He must’ve fucked up big-time (or Frank finally called her out on her bullshit)…

Honourable Mention: Elizabeth Rees-Williams managed to deftly avoid such dramas by dedicating her autobiography to “RH”. Her first husband was Richard Harris, and her second was Rex Harrison. Points for diplomacy!

No Thanks – E.E. Cummings

“TO

Farrar & Rinehart

Simon & Schuster

Coward-McCann

Limited Editions

Harcourt, Brace

Random House

Equinox Press

Smith & Haas

Viking Press

Knopf

Dutton

Harper’s

Scribner’s

Covici-Friede”

No Thanks (E.E. Cummings)

It’s too bad that the formatting of this blog won’t let me lay out this dedication in its original shape. E.E. Cummings is the king of sass. His collection, originally titled “70 Poems”, was rejected fourteen times, leaving him a little disheartened. So, he hit up his mother, she loaned him $300, and he published the collection himself under its new title: No Thanks. This dedication is the name of each publisher who rejected him, laid out in the shape of a funeral urn.

A Storm Of Swords – George R.R. Martin

“For Phyllis, who made me put the dragons in.”

A Storm Of Swords (George R.R. Martin)

If his book dedication is to be believed, then George R.R. Martin owes this Phyllis a few bucks. What would the Song Of Ice And Fire series be without dragons? “Mother of Cats” or “Mother of Horses” just doesn’t have the same ring to it…

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis

“To Lucy Barfield

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,

C.S. Lewis”

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis

Oh, my heart! Have you ever read anything so pure in your life? C.S. Lewis dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to Lucy Barfield, the adopted daughter of his long-time friend Owen. Not only that, he named the heroine of his story after her. Clearly, his goddaughter made quite an impression on him! She has a heart-wrenching life story herself, diagnosed with MS in her 20s and continuing to write poetry up until her death in 2003 (this beautiful Guardian article about her had me in tears), but apparently she took great delight in letters from fans around the world who believed her to be the real-life Narnia-adventuring Lucy.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

“Sixty million and more.”

Beloved (Toni Morrison)

It might take a minute for the full horror and beauty of the dedication in Toni Morrison’s Beloved to sink in: the sixty-million to whom she refers are the black men and women who died in the Atlantic slave trade. The novel itself speaks volumes to the after-effects of slavery, its ongoing impact and the suffering that continues to this day, thus “and more”.

Messenger Of Fear – Michael Grant

“I normally dedicate my books to Katherine, Jake, and Julia. Not this time.

For Julia, Jake, and Katherine.

Because Julia is tired of always being named last just because she’s the youngest.”

Messenger Of Fear (Michael Grant)

I had to end on a lighter note, and thinking of all the years of nagging that went into this dedication for Messenger Of Fear makes me giggle! Poor Michael Grant! I hope Julia finally feels she’s been appropriately acknowledged.



And a final word: pour some out for those incredibly prolific authors who are forced to get increasingly creative with their dedications as their back-catalogue grows. Poor Agatha Christie had to do it seventy-four times over! She dedicated the first to her mother (The Mysterious Affair At Styles), then a later effort “to all those who lead monotonous lives” (The Secret Adversary), and another to her dog Peter (Dumb Witness), and – my personal favourite – one to her friends “Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene of a murder” (The Hollow). Ha! Have you come across any great book recommendations? Share them in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Most Heartbreaking Deaths In Literature

I’m not going to sugar-coat it (when do I ever?): authors are sadists. They get their jollies crafting wonderful characters that we adore and cherish, only to kill them in the most brutal and gut-wrenching ways. Every booklover has at least one or two character deaths that have left them scarred and reaching for the tissues. If you’ve read any of these books, I’m very sorry for your loss and for triggering those traumatic memories. If you’ve not picked them up yet, consider this an impassioned warning of what lies ahead. Here are the seven most heartbreaking deaths in literature.

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Ted (The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham)

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll confess, I didn’t love everything about The Dressmaker, but the death of Ted is one of the cruellest I’ve ever read (and that’s coming from a book littered with corpses and all manner of cruelty). Tilly, the protagonist, overcomes her trauma and opens herself up to love, only to have her leading man, the kind-hearted and dreamy Ted, meet a very sudden and unfortunate end. As a joke, he jumps into a silo, as he used to do when he was a kid, believing it to be filled with wheat… only it was actually filled with light sorghum that couldn’t support his weight. He suffocated as he sunk down, never to be seen again, as Tilly watched helpless from the top. Gahhhh!

Lady (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

George R.R. Martin is famous (or infamous) for his fictional death toll, and A Game Of Thrones has more dead bodies than you can poke a stick at, but the one that truly broke me was that of Lady. Each of the Stark children has been given a direwolf of their own, to keep as a pet, and it’s a wonderful arrangement until Arya’s direwolf attacks the prince. Arya is clever enough to send her beloved pet off into the woods to hide, but Queen Cersei’s vengeful wrath demands satisfaction. She insists that Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, be killed in its place. And Ned Stark offers to be the one to do it, saving the gorgeous animal any unnecessary pain. The death of an innocent at the hands of a loving father! *sobs*

Sirius Black (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling)

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Good one, James!” Sirius shouts, mistaking his beloved godson for his departed friend, right as Bellatrix Lestrange fires off a curse that sends him into that good night. His body falls through a strange portal, never to be seen again. J.K. Rowling is a cruel, cruel woman! You know what, pretty much every death in the Harry Potter series is heartbreaking: Dumbledore, Lupin and Tonks, Fred, Hedwig, Dobby… I’ll accept any answer except for Snape. That guy caused so much trouble just because he was butt-hurt that Lily didn’t love him back, I have no sympathy. Anyway, at least Rowling is kind enough to apologise for one death per year on Twitter.

Tom Robinson (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

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To Kill A Mockingbird is all about the loss of innocence, and Tom Robinson’s death is just that: the literal death of an innocent man, wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. So disheartened by his guilty verdict, and its racial overtones (Tom being a black man, accused of raping a white woman), he tries to escape prison, only to be shot by the guards. It’s the one time we see Atticus Finch truly shaken, so heartbroken is he that Tom didn’t live to see out the appeals process and his exoneration. Tom’s death had to happen, so that readers could fully understand the consequences of injustice, but that doesn’t make it any less sad.

The “Goldens” Prince Philip and Fatima (We Were Liars – E. Lockhart)

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There are five beautiful golden retrievers in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, and I am emotionally traumatised by the needless death of two of them, Prince Philip and Fatima. They were lovable goofballs, treasured pets of the Sinclair grandparents. They ate starfish from the beach, only to vomit them up on the fancy carpet later, and adored tennis balls. Yes, they’re a metaphor for the pretty-but-vapid Sinclair sisters, but I was truly heartbroken by their deaths. They were sacrificed in the Liars’ foolish and futile attempt to destroy family privilege with an act of petty vandalism. What terrible waste!

Beth March (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)

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

You’d be hard-pressed to find a booklover who doesn’t list Beth’s death in Little Women as one of the most heartbreaking deaths in literature. Beth was the sweet one, the innocent one, the one who sought only to spread joy and care for others… so, of course, she had to bite the dust. In fact, her kindness is the very reason she died; she contracted scarlet fever while caring for a neighbour’s sick child. She died curled up next to Jo, satisfied that for once she would be the first of her sisters to do something. If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider Joey in that episode of Friends, who was so distressed he had to hide the book in the freezer…

John Thornton and All. Of. The. Dogs. (The Call Of The Wild – Jack London)

The Call Of The Wild - Jack London - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In just 84 pages, Jack London managed to cram in more heartbreaking deaths than the rest of this list put together. So many dogs died in The Call Of The Wild – some killed by humans, some killed by their fellows, some killed by the sheer exhaustion of their work i n the gold rush. What’s more, the only nice human in the whole book, John Thornton, the only damn one who shows these animals the kindness and respect they deserve, goes and gets himself killed by a Native American tribe. He is avenged, of course, but still! I can’t fathom the depths of London’s cruelty.



As you can see, I’m of the firm belief that dog deaths are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature, and I’m not even sorry for crowding this list with them. Humans, at least, usually deserve what’s coming to them, and can defend themselves; our best friends with four legs, on the other hand… *reaches for tissues*. Which do you think are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature? If you can work through the pain, tell me in the comments (or share your grief over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Books That Will Take You By Surprise

Even though I know very little about most books on The List going in, I can’t help but develop some preconceived ideas. Maybe it’s the cover art, maybe it’s the blurb, maybe it’s a sticker that says “award winner“, maybe it’s a recommendation from a celebrity or a friend; whatever it is, it’s hard to come at a book with a completely blank slate. The great thing about a project like Keeping Up With The Penguins is that it urges me to forge ahead anyway, and sometimes I’m very pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, it’s a let down. But whatever the case may be, I get to share my surprise (pleasant or otherwise) with all of you, Keeper-Upperers! Here are seven books that will take you by surprise (one way or the other).

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Surprisingly Relatable: Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

OK, I realise that’s a weird thing to say about a book with an axe-murderer for a protagonist, but I swear it’s true! (And I’m not weird. Or murderous. Promise.) Crime and Punishment is a Russian classic, and as such I expected it to be dense, wordy, and dull… but it was none of those things! Granted, I might have to attribute a little bit of the magic to the translator of my particular edition, David McDuff, but he can’t take all the credit! Dostoyevsky wrote a beautiful, intricate novel exploring the anxieties and self-fulfilling prophecies of a man who had great intentions but couldn’t help getting in his own way. Who can’t relate to that? Just a little?

Surprising Plot Twist: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m cynical to a fault, and always thinking three steps ahead in books and movies. I’m the one who says “I bet this is what happens next!” and ruins it for everyone (I’m sorry, I know, I’m hateful!). That’s why I was so bowled over by a book with a plot twist that I did. not. see. coming! Not for one second! And that book was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s one of the very few books for which I give an actual spoiler warning, because the twist is just so damn good I can’t bear the thought of ruining it for someone else. I can’t say any more here, for obvious reasons, but if plot twists are your thing, this one is a must-read!

Surprisingly Tame: Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When a book gets its publisher prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, you expect it to be… well, filthy. The publisher’s note in the front of Lady Chatterley’s Lover actually dedicates the book to the twelve jurors that declared them not guilty. I thought that was really great, at first. As I got further and further into Lady C, I grew to suspect that the jurors voted to acquit Penguin simply because the book wasn’t actually that dirty. Lawrence just gave us a whole lotta quivering wombs and chest-clutching, snore. There’s way better literary smut out there!

Surprisingly Accessible: An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Kazuo Ishiguro has won pretty much every serious literary award there is, so I expected An Artist Of The Floating World to be dense. I mean, that’s what award-winners are, right? Serious Books For Grown Ups? Turns out, I was dead wrong! This slim tome was a highly engaging and fascinating look into the mind of an ageing Japanese artist. It picks apart the role he played distributing propaganda and dobbing in his mates during the Second World War. If you want to read more “serious” fiction, but you don’t want to wear out your thinking meat, this is a great one to start with.

Surprisingly Masterful: The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

They’re just detective stories, right? How good could they really be? Damn good! The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is officially my favourite classic short-story collection, and I am in awe of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mastery of the craft. He managed to squeeze incredibly complex, intricate stories into surprisingly few words, while simultaneously making them easy to understand and follow. Seriously, it will take you longer to explain the plot of a Holmes story to a friend than it will for you to read it in the first place. Impressive, eh?

Surprisingly Funny: The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A book about a centenarian who escapes his nursing home and ends up on the run from a gang of drug dealers should probably be sad, not funny… but it’ll surprise you! The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared in question is Allan Karlsson, and he has lived one heck of a life. He’s living proof that vodka is cleansing, and you can make friends with just about anybody if you approach them with an open mind. You’ll be rooting for this elderly Swede before you know it, and you’ll get more literal lols out of this story than you can poke a stick at.

Surprisingly Underrated: Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’d never even heard of Cold Comfort Farm before I pulled my Keeping Up With The Penguins list together – and that’s a goddamn travesty, I’m telling you! Stella Gibbons is the poster-girl for refusing to play by the rules, which is probably why she gets swept under the rug so much. She satirised D.H. Lawrence, pissing off all the fan-boys that (shall we say) appreciated his free-love philosophies. She refused to mix in writing circles, ostracising Virginia Woolf (an enemy no emerging writer needs). And she publicly bemoaned the success of Cold Comfort Farm, like a ’90s pop star that refuses to play their biggest hit. She might have wound up resenting it, but I fucking loved it! It’s hilarious, it’s insightful, it’s brilliant – and atrociously underrated by academics and general readers alike. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy, if for no other reason than to show the publishers that Gibbons is an author worth remembering (and reprinting).



Life is full of surprises, and so are books. What was the last book to take you by surprise? Tell me why in the comments (or add it to the list over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

13 Books That Will Start Debate In Your Book Club

Nothing is more dreary than a book club where everyone agrees all the time. I mean, you don’t want punches thrown or anything, but a good-spirited lively debate is the dream. And for that kind of conversation, you need to pick the right kind of book. It’s not about having everyone like it, it’s about everyone having something to say about it, one way or the other. Choosing a controversial book not only livens up the night, but it forces everyone to actually read the damn thing (I’m looking at you, Susan!). If they haven’t, and they try to contribute to the conversation, it will become abundantly obvious very quickly, and they’ll be shamed into better book club behaviour in the future. Here are my suggestions to get the ball rolling: 13 books that will start debate in your book club.

13 Books Guaranteed To Start Debate In Your Book Club - Text Overlaid on Image of People Gathered and Reading - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the classic Pandora’s box story. In The Husband’s Secret, a woman finds an envelope written in her husband’s hand, that says she is only to open it in the event of his death… but he’s still alive. Would you open it, or would you let him keep his secrets? And, if you reached for the letter-opener, what would you do with its contents? You’ll be surprised how much you learn about your fellow book club members when you put these questions to them…

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Everyone will agree that something has gone terribly wrong in Eva’s family, but that’s probably where the consensus about We Need To Talk About Kevin will end. Is Eva a bad mother? Is Kevin a bad kid? Where do we draw the line between nature and nurture? Can one fix the other? It’s a confronting story, but it’s one that’s sure to get people talking.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Now, I’m famously hesitant to say too much about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, because I can’t bear the thought of spoiling the plot twist for the uninitiated. So, the first (safe) question I would ask is this: who saw it coming? (And I’m very sure anyone who says they did is lying!) Follow up: was it a good twist, or a bad one? And there are plenty of other questions raised by this Man Booker nominee, but to find them you’ll have to read it for yourself… 😉


Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

Make sure you stock up on tissues! Sophie’s Choice is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching read, guaranteed to elicit some strong feelings from even the stoniest-hearted members of your book club. Even though the title only offers the singular, in reality Sophie makes a number of choices along the way, which means you can ask the same question a dozen times and get different answers: would you have made the same choice?

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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

The Age Of Innocence is a very subtle novel, and many people give up on it. For those who persist, however, it raises a lot of interesting questions about the roles of women, even in today’s society. Are you Team May Welland, or Team Countess Olenska? How has our perception of their behaviour changed since the book was first published?

Honourable Mention: A lot of these same questions could be asked of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a quicker read, and much more light-hearted, if your book club is more inclined to those choices.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

Speaking of gender roles… this is an evocative title to suggest for mixed company, so unless you’ve assembled an entirely woke and left-leaning book club, prepare for fireworks! In Men Explain Things To Me, Solnit explores through a series of comic essays the ways in which men and women speak to one another. It’s sure to elicit some amazing anecdotes from the other attendees, if nothing else!


A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Game Of Thrones is a longer book club would normally need, but (almost) everyone is already familiar with the story thanks to the hugely successful HBO adaptation, which makes it a much quicker read than other lengthy tomes. And there’s your first grenade: try asking whether anyone thinks the book is better than the show! If that doesn’t get things started (fat chance), ask: who deserves the Iron Throne?  And let the games begin!

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Fires Everywhere is a book with no minor characters. Everyone has a unique viewpoint, and all of them are a shade of grey. That means that everyone in your book club will relate to them differently, and will be able to mount a legitimate case for their preferred narrative. Who chose right, and who chose wrong? You’ll stay up all night hashing it out!

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth - Penguin Australia Edition Laid Flat On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This one is not for the faint of heart If members of your book club shy away from profanity, or smut, or even just crude comedy, they’re going to have a lot of strong opinions about Portnoy’s Complaint! But that’s the idea, remember? Enjoy debating the relative merits of Roth’s particular brand of comedy.


The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists raises many interesting questions, but surely the most pressing (and the most interesting for your book club) is this: would you want to know the date of your own death? And, if you did, how would you choose to live? In Chloe Benjamin’s beautiful novel, four adolescents are faced with that very question, and each of them handle it very differently. Are you inclined to search for love? Security? Longevity? Everyone in your book club will have a different answer – that’s the fun!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

Try taking everyone back to the books you read in high-school. It gives you the chance to ask the attendees questions like whether they like it more or less than they did back then. And do the first-timers feel differently to the re-readers? And even above and beyond the nostalgic elements, To Kill A Mockingbird ticks a lot of debate-starter boxes: social justice, race in America, you name it. Does it hold up? Or has it aged past relevance? And, if nothing else, the themed cocktails practically mix themselves.

The Power  – Naomi Alderman

Technically, this is a young adult novel, so that alone might make it a somewhat controversial choice for an adult book club. Make sure everyone holds fire on their opinions until they’ve read it, though – The Power could change a few hearts and mind. In this incredible book, women gain an incredible physical power that gives them, for the first time in history, a physical, political, and social advantage. How would that change the world? Is it for the better, or worse? Debate and decide for yourselves 😉

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s end on a fun note: a ghost story! The Turn Of The Screw is the perfect choice around Halloween. It’s short, but meaty, and it leaves just enough of a mystery dangling to start debate in your book club. Are ghosts real? Or is the governess who sees them just… crazy? What’s been lost in the translation of a story within a story? And why the heck was Henry James so wordy??




That should be enough to keep your book club meetings lively for the next year or so: my work here is done! What book has sparked debate in your book club? Add it to the list in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

What Is The Great American Novel?

I’ve reviewed a handful of American classics for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and I’ll be reviewing a few more yet. Whenever I start researching one of them, I’ll always come across a think-piece or a comment thread somewhere debating whether or not the book should be considered the Great American Novel. I’ve referenced the concept a few times myself, but never really addressed the elephant in the room: what is the Great American Novel, exactly? Where did it come from, and why is it so contentious? Now seems as good a time as any to take a look…

What Is The Great American Novel? - Text Overlaid on Image of American Flags - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Origins of The Great American Novel as a Concept

It was, of course, a dead white guy who first coined the phrase “the great American novel”. John William DeForest published an essay in 1868, a few years after the end of the Civil War, in which he defined it as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. America, at the time was a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself; the North and South were barely reconciled, and it was a time of self-conscious tumult in the American identity. American literature was also relatively new; the colonials had written books, of course, but the development of a unique and entirely separate literary tradition in the New World took over a century. So, DeForest’s search for a single book that unified and reflected an all-encompassing American experience was laughably ambitious.

He didn’t have much luck, by the way. Even by his own standard, DeForest said that the composition of the Great American Novel had not yet been achieved. Harriet Beecher Stowe came close, he said, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but didn’t quite get the gong. He was also pretty dismissive of the next-closest option, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. As far as DeForest was concerned, the definitive Great American Novel couldn’t be far off – he had no idea we’d still be arguing over his little thought exercise 150 years later…


How Do We Define the Great American Novel?

We’ve spent a great deal of the intervening century-and-a-half debating DeForest’s idea, and proposing our own definitions and criteria by which we could judge the Great American Novel. Journals and periodicals over the rest of the 19th century featured countless essays by other writers keen to expand on his proposition. The subject became a safe retreat on slow news days for newspapers of the 20th century. And now, we have the internet, which is littered with listicles and slide-shows of the contenders, and more than one “hot take” on why the Great American Novel could never really exist anyway (party poopers).

Of course, there’s no ultimate authority to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, so there’s plenty of fodder to keep us arguing for another hundred and fifty years or so (assuming America lasts that long… eeek!). Above and beyond the criteria we’ve proposed to define a classic book (literary merit and so forth), here are a few suggested definitions we could use to determine what is the Great American Novel.

“The novel is a true and honest reflection of the age.”

Put another way, the Great American Novel must perfectly capture the spirit and culture of a given period in the United States. This one is interesting, because it leaves scope for a different Great American Novel for each era. Examples might include The Great Gatsby, which captured the Jazz Age, or On The Road, reflecting the Beat Generation.

“The novel had a significant cultural impact.”

Now, this is a wily one, because who’s to say what’s “significant”? Heck, who’s to say what’s “cultural impact”? It’s one of those I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it definitions, which can be problematic. So far, the best we can do is rely upon a general agreement regarding “significance” among academics and general readers alike. To Kill A Mockingbird would probably pass the test, given how it revolutionised America’s understanding of social justice and race.

“It must encompass the entire nation, and not be too consumed with a single region.”

This is a lofty goal. It’s one worth considering, of course, but I can’t think of a single contender that actually manages it. The States, united as they may be, are incredibly varied and diverse. Is it really possible for a single book to encompass them all? (If you can think of one, please suggest it in the comments!)

“Its author must have been born in the U.S., or have adopted the country as his or her own.”

Initially, I bristled at this one. It seemed too emblematic of the cultural imperialism perpetuated by America over the last century or so. It would necessarily exclude writers like Vladimir Nabokov, who was Russian-born but authored Lolita, undoubtedly a contender for the Great American Novel by other measures. Surely, the content of the work should bear more weight than the passport of the writer. Perhaps it would be better to say that the author must be deeply knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the “average” U.S. citizen (if there is such a thing).

“The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language of American people, and capture their experience.”

That’s better! By this measure, books like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn fit the bill perfectly. It highlights the use of vernacular, and furthers the cause of using fiction as a source of historical record. Plus, it recognises the uniqueness of the American experience and aspirations, which are undoubtedly different to those found and felt elsewhere.

“It has to be read by or familiar to a large number of Americans.”

This one seems fair enough. I think the addition of the familiarity element is important: these days, relatively few Americans have read Moby Dick in full, for instance, but I guarantee almost all of them would recognise the title. They’d probably even be able to give you a brief, largely accurate, summary of the plot and its themes. That’s a level of saturation that’s hard to ignore.



But, if we’re determined to be cynical, we could conclude that it’s impossible to define or determine what is the Great American Novel. A.O. Scott once proposed that the Great American Novel was effectively a myth, likening its existence to urban legends and conspiracies:

“… the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster – or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people – not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation – claim to have seen.”

A.O. Scott (2006)

All respect to Scott, but even though we all know Big Foot probably doesn’t exist, we still spend hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars searching for him every year. If the debate over what constitutes the Great American Novel keeps people buying and reading books, I’ll go down stoking the flames of this debate.

The Great American Novels

It’s practically impossible to give an exhaustive list of contenders for the Great American Novel. You’d have to scan all four corners of the internet, and fall down so many rabbit holes, to find every single title that’s ever been floated as a possibility. So here are a few that seem to crop up more often than most:

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even though DeForest, the daddy of this whole debate, wrote off The Scarlet Letter, it’s still widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of the Great American Novel. It’s certainly highly recognisable, it’s had significant cultural impact (as judged by its many adaptations and call-backs in subsequent art), it recorded a unique period in American history (puritanical New England), and as far as we know it was a fairly accurate representation of the era.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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Moby Dick is another uniquely American novel – even though, ironically, very little of the action took place on American soil. The story of Ahab and his white whale can be read as a metaphor for just about anything: democracy, man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with nature (and, more recently, climate change), a critique of capitalism, a critique of slavery, and so on. Plus, it has become culturally ubiquitous, imitated and appropriated by everyone from artists to politicians to academics.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

Hemingway once said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”. As I was reading it, I could see that Papa was right: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, plain to see are the origins of subsequent literary icons like The Catcher In The Rye. Plus, it is one of the best renderings of American vernacular that I have ever read. Most admirably (depending who you ask), Twain managed to simultaneously exhibit the racist history of the American South, while critiquing it and proposing a new way forward.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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As I mentioned earlier, The Great Gatsby has become synonymous with our recollection of the Jazz Age in America. It’s likely the most aspirational of these contenders for the Great American Novel, highlighting the American desire for wealth and success and all its trappings, as well as the sordid underbelly of the “American dream”. That said, could we really consider it a reflection of a universally American experience? Probably not. But its fans and adherents are so damn vocal, we’ll probably never be able to cross it off the list entirely.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

The Grapes Of Wrath depicts a particularly dark time in America’s history, the Great Depression in the dust bowl of the South. Steinbeck also focused on the experiences of the working class, the “Average Joes” (or Average Joads, as it were), an experience not often explored in the other contenders listed here. It is, to some minds, not quite as iconic as books like Moby Dick or Gatsby, but it does an incredible job of recording and reflecting a uniquely American language and experience in ways that other contenders lack.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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Here’s another American experience not often captured in other contenders for the Great American Novel: that of the disaffected youth. Holden Caulfield has become perhaps one of the most iconic teenage characters of all time, even beyond the American literary tradition, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a definition of coming-of-age literature that doesn’t cite The Catcher In The Rye somewhere along the line. Sounds like a significant cultural impact to me!



On The Road – Jack Kerouac

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Another period – this time, the Beat Generation – another definitive novel. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road stands out among its contemporaries. It’s more than just a road-trip novel, more than just a sordid exhibition of the beatniks and their free-loving drink-and-drug-fuelled adventures. It’s an exploration, once again, of American longing, aspiration, and search for meaning. It also has much to say regarding waste and futility in a changing world. Plus, best of all, we can be pretty damn sure of its accuracy in depicting an American experience, being taken – as it was – pretty much directly from Kerouac’s diaries, a very faithful roman-a-clef.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

Just last year, Americans voted To Kill A Mockingbird to be their best-loved novel in the Great American Read survey, so its popularity, recognisability, and endurance are pretty much unquestionable. It remains a fixture on school reading lists, likely for its heady combination of coming-of-age, social justice, and earnest idealism tempered by harsh reality. To be honest, I can’t think of a single definition of the Great American Novel that it doesn’t pass in some measure; it’s one of the strongest contenders to date.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

To Kill A Mockingbird might be the general readership’s favoured choice, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved came out on top in a New York Times survey of 125 writers. Its rise to canonical status has been remarkably quick; just 20 years after its initial publication, it was already considered to be a staple of university reading lists, and Morrison is now listed alongside Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain as one of the greatest American writers of all time. Its perspective and its story are unique in this list, and that in itself highlights the problems with our current understanding of the Great American Novel (more on those in a minute).



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Granted, this might be a selfish inclusion, because I personally think that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a far better book and a far better reflection of the Jazz Age than stupid Gatsby (and I suspect it’s been overlooked because of the entrenched sexist attitudes that lead us to value the stories of men above those of women, but that’s a rant for another day). But I stand by it, because I’ve got a highly-respected vote in my favour: Edith Wharton, an incredible American writer in her own right, called it the Great American Novel. It’s an honest and true reflection of a perspective on the Jazz Age that has often been marginalised (that of women who empowered themselves through sexuality), and surely that counts for more than its comparative lack of popularity.

Problems With Defining The Great American Novel

Surely you can already see the problem here? On this list of ten contenders, only three were authored by women, and only one by a woman of colour. That’s not a result of my own biases, I promise you. Every list of Great American Novel contenders is very white, and very male.

Ironically, the whole concept began with the work of a woman (DeForest said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the closest he had seen to the Great American Novel, remember?), and yet we’ve historically excluded female authors and female perspectives from these discussions. This goes double – triple! – for people of colour (encompassing Native Americans, African Americans, and later migrants). And there’s a whole stack of other marginalised experiences that rarely get a look in, too…

When we exclude marginalised authors, we exclude marginalised experiences from the narrative, and if that continues we will never have a Great American Novel that is truly representative of an American experience. Part of defining the Great American Novel for the future is redefining what constitutes an American experience, and who belongs in the picture.

It’s not as if there’s a lack of options! Consider books like The Color Purple, The Joy Luck Club, The Book Of Unknown Americans, Americanah, An American Marriage – all of them depict a uniquely American experience, outside the narrow defines of white male privilege.




Still, even with these problems and a marked lack of diversity, the ideal of the Great American Novel will probably never die. In fact, one could argue it’s more important now than ever, in a time of major shifts in an American identity (shifts in culture are always reflected in literature, sooner or later). What do you think constitutes the Great American Novel? Can you come up with any contenders I haven’t listed here? Tell me your ideas in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

10 Books To Help You Sort Out Your Mess Of A Life

Self-help books are a $10 billion industry. Yep, you read that right: $10 billion. Personally, I don’t read a lot of them (I’m just too cynical, and that much eye-rolling makes me tired), but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone else a little comfort, or motivation, or whatever else they get out of them. Obviously, I’m in the minority, because that $10 billion doesn’t come from nowhere! I have occasion to wonder, though, whether some of these personal improvers have ever tried turning to other types of books for help.  There are very important lessons buried in the pages of the classics, best-sellers, even pop-science books – after all, storytelling traditions (which began with fiction) have given us the entire accumulation of human wisdom. So, before you pick up the latest manual from a self-help guru, maybe try checking out one of these ten books to help you sort out your mess of a life. (I’ve even highlighted what I consider to be the key lesson from each one, to make the selection process as easy as possible…)

10 Books To Help You Sort Out Your Mess Of A Life - Text Overlaid on Image of Hand Reaching Out of Dark Water - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paulo Coelho’s famous allegorical tale is as close to a self-help/fiction hybrid as you can get. The Alchemist follows the story of an Andalusian shepherd as he pursues his dreams of finding buried treasure beneath the Egyptian pyramids. It’s a quick read, almost like a fairytale, and hippies the world over swear by it for teaching the power of manifestation and the path to true happiness. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Sometimes the universe conspires to give you exactly what you need, as our Andalusian shepherd finds time and time again. But you should also learn from his mistakes: sometimes you search the world over to find what’s waiting for you at home.

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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

You might not think it, but you can learn a lot from the self-involved social climbers of late 19th century New York. If you look closely, you’ll find Edith Wharton’s beautifully intricate book The Age Of Innocence is all about conformity, lost opportunity, and self-determination. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is so caught up in doing what is expected of him and saving face that he misses his chance to be truly happy. Even worse, when he gets a second chance later in life, he misses it, because he’s a big ol’ chicken. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Martyrdom gets you nowhere. You might think you’re winning the war by keeping everybody else happy, but you’re kidding yourself. Don’t be such a fraidy-cat!

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not sure that the key lessons of The Rosie Project come so much from its story as it does the way that Graeme Simsion tells it. He’s able to show very deftly, through characterisation and dialogue, how terrible humans are at correctly attributing the behaviours and decisions of others, and ourselves. Even if you don’t want to look at it that deeply, it’s a fun quirky story about finding love, even where you’re not expecting it. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Try looking at yourself from someone else’s perspective once in a while, and give other people the benefit of the doubt.

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another Australian bestseller, with another important life lesson for you: The Dressmaker is a dark, gothic story of a young woman’s return to the town and the townspeople that have haunted her all her life. Come for the fun fashion tips and the Aussie vernacular, stay for the cautionary tale about dealing with trauma and moving on with your life. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Revenge may taste good, but it’s destructive as hell, and the people who have loved and supported you will get caught in the crossfire. Focus on living well for yourself, and you’ll be surprised what you can move past.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even if it turns out that The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared doesn’t help you sort out your mess of a life, I can guarantee it will at least give you a few belly laughs, and that can’t hurt! Allan Karlsson’s century of adventures takes him all over the world, he rubs shoulders with world leaders and household names, and he always manages to squeeze his way out of tight spots with a little help from his friends. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Never burn a bridge – you never know when you might need to cross it again. You’ll be surprised what political differences can be overcome when you share a few laughs and a bottle of vodka.

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Brain That Changes Itself is actually laid out quite similarly to a self-help book, and reads a lot like one, even though it’s focused on the science underpinning neuroplasticity. It’s not perfect – Doidge has a few puritanical hang-ups, and ignores a number of ethical dilemmas when it comes to animal testing – but he still has plenty to teach you about how your brain works, and how to use its capacity for change to your advantage. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Your brain isn’t set in stone. There are ways to tweak your wiring, so you can function better and lead a happier life. It’s all within your reach, even without a neurology degree or an endless supply of pharmaceuticals.

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Liane Moriarty is renowned for her ability to write complex, charming stories with seemingly impossible internal struggles, and The Husband’s Secret is no exception. A woman finds a note, written in her husband’s hand, and the envelope says she should only open it in the event of his death. What’s a girl to do? Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Pandora was right to open the damn box. Don’t let your secrets fester; they’ll infect your entire life, and it will all come out in the end, no matter how clever you think you are.

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anh Do is a study in overcoming adversity. His memoir, The Happiest Refugee, tells the story of his family’s harrowing escape from post-war Vietnam, and his life in Australia. He’s a comedian, yes, but the book isn’t all quick quips and punchlines; in parts, he’s heartbreakingly honest about times of anger, resentment, and loss. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Anh lays it out for you, pure and simple – work hard, smile, and show up at the right time.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Before I picked up Wild, I’d pictured Cheryl Strayed as a bored mid-30s housewife who packed in her perfect life to “find herself”. And I was very, very wrong. When she undertook her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, she was in her 20s, recovering from heroin addiction, had barely a dollar to her name, and she was still grieving the sudden loss of her young mother. Her memoir has lots of gory details about the trials and tribulations of her time on the trail, and it’ll touch you in ways you don’t expect. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: You can persist through just about anything (seriously, if Cheryl Strayed can hike hundreds of miles while blistering and bleeding in too-small boots, you can sort out your mess of a life). Also, hiking is not the same as walking, don’t kid yourself.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

This suggestion might seem like it’s coming out of left field, but stay with me: Crime And Punishment is more relatable than you’d expect. Raskolnikov makes a whole lotta bad choices, even though he started out with great intentions, and he’s crippled by anxiety and paranoia – who among us can’t relate to that, just a little? Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Chances are, you’re getting in your own way. Focusing on your worries and fears will probably be what makes them a reality. Also, don’t be an axe murderer. Even if you have really good reasons, just… don’t.


Honourable mentions go to Jane Eyre and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both of which taught us whatever you hide in the attic will eventually come to bite you in the arse. What important lessons have you learned from classic books and best-sellers? Tell me in the comments (or share with us all over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Stamps In My Book Passport

It was fun looking at how far I’ve travelled through time in my books, so I figured why not look at where in the world they’re taking me, too? I was also inspired by an amazing TED talk by Ann Morgan, who committed a year of her life to reading a book from every single country in the world. I’ve talked before about how my current reading list isn’t great from a diversity perspective, so I knew that my book passport wouldn’t have that many stamps, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting. Take a look…!

Stamps In My Book Passport - Text Overlaid on Image of Passports Laying On Top Of Map - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Unsurprisingly, given that I’m reading English-language books and I’m based in Australia, the most frequently-visited countries are Australia (The Dressmaker, The Rosie Project, and so on), the U.K. (Austen, Dickens, and so forth), and the U.S.A. (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Age Of Innocence, etc.). However, it would seem I’m also doing frequent trips to France, which I hadn’t realised before now (Tropic of Cancer, The White Mouse, and others).

I’ve also been to India a couple of times (A Passage To India, Kim), and to Spain (The Alchemist, Don Quixote), and to Germany (The Book Thief, All The Light We Cannot See). I put together this map, for a visual representation:

World Map Shaded By Settings of Books Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of course, by necessity, this tally excludes trips to apocalyptic futures (The Hunger Games, A Clockwork Orange, and the like), and fantasy worlds (A Game of Thrones, Gulliver’s Travels, and similar), and space (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Martian, and more).

I’d really love to spend some more time in Africa, so that will be one focus for The Next List. I’m also surprised that I haven’t yet “been” to Canada or New Zealand! It’s been such a useful exercise to look at my reading this way, I think I’ll keep checking in and (hopefully) someday this map will be a sea of green.


Aren’t books magical? It would take me years to plan, save for, and undertake a trip to all of these places, but through books I can visit them all in a day or two. Where have your books taken you lately? Share your travels in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

8 Most Annoying Characters In Literature

Last month, I wrote a post about literary heroes who are garbage people. I had to make some tough choices as I was putting it together, because some characters aren’t necessarily garbage people but they are damn annoying. It’s been niggling at me ever since: don’t these annoying characters deserve their moment in the sun, too? So, here you have it. The most annoying characters in literature, as determined by me.

8 Most Annoying Characters In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Annoyed Young Girl Laying in Grass Field - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Harry (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This one is first, because I’ve just got to get it off my chest! We all love the Harry Potter books, it’s the children’s series that changed the world etc etc, but ZOMG! Harry is the most angsty, self-absorbed nincompoop of all time! At first, he was kind of sweet, locked in his cupboard under the stairs and then staring around the world of magic in wide eyed wonderment… but by the time we get to Goblet Of Fire, he’s turned into a right arsehole. He seems to completely lack basic empathy – he can’t understand why his best friend might be a little peeved that he’s always the center of attention, for crying out loud! – and he basically runs around getting high off his own fumes for the next few years. Ugh! There are so many wonderful characters and true heroes in J.K. Rowling’s magical world, but I’m sorry (not sorry), Harry ain’t one of ’em.

Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s all take a minute to appreciate the fact that The Great Gatsby only exists because Nick Carraway thinks he’s the first guy to discover that partying with pretty girls is fun. Give me a break! Everyone else hates on Daisy and Tom, and really every character in this book is a right pain in the arse, but Nick is especially annoying. He trails after Gatsby like a puppy dog, he treats the creep like the second coming, and he can’t understand why no one comes to the funeral of the sad rich guy who borderline-stalked a girl for years. Seriously! If you want to re-visit the Jazz Age, by all means do so, but choose Gentlemen Prefer Blondes instead; at least Anita Loos makes fun of the mopey white guys who seriously under-appreciate their ridiculously privileged lives. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Augustus Waters (The Fault In Our Stars – John Green)

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I realise, in saying this, I risk being attacked by an angry mob of John Green fans, but it has to be said: Augustus is pretty much the main reason The Fault In Our Stars sucks. He’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl stuffed into the body of a teenage boy amputee, a series of shitty affectations cobbled together into something resembling a character, ugh. The whole “I put cigarettes in my mouth but I never light them because it’s a metaphor” thing? It’s a metaphor for “you’re a dick”, mate. Get in the bin. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

Cather “Cath” Avery (Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell)

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Cath is pretty harmless, on the whole, but damn the girl can get in her own way. If I’m being honest, there’s a few sour grapes rotting at the pit of my annoyance. Throughout Fangirl, she demonstrates time and time again that she does not give a single fuck for the time and effort that her writing professor is investing in her, and it infuriates me! Doesn’t she know how many writing students would give their left arm and their first born for that kind of attention? She just leaves it all flapping in the wind, so she can stay holed up in her room writing fan-fiction on a Saturday night (instead of doing her actual assignments for classes), and whinging about her sister having a life (instead of actually communicating with her, like a grown-up). Read my full review of Fangirl here.

Guy Montag (Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury)

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I really have no time for this guy at all. First, he lets himself get brainwashed into making a living doing a shitty job. That’s not great, but it’s understandable. But then he harangues his wife for being brainwashed into wanting a few material things and liking a few psychoactive substances, the hypocritical prick. And, to top it all off, he goes and meets a teenage girl, decides to have a mid-life crisis, and basically destroys the entire social order and runs off with his tail between his legs as the world burns down. Fahrenheit 451 is a beloved book, I know, and its message is perhaps even more resonant today than ever before, but Guy Montag is one of the most annoying characters in literature, hands down.

Pearl (The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne)

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can appreciate that Pearl is just a kid, and she’s been raised under a lot of undue pressure, so her annoying nature isn’t entirely her fault… but she drove me up the wall the whole way through The Scarlet Letter. Her mother, Hester, is a warrior woman, fighting the good fight and raising her head defiantly in the patriarchal world that would see her brought down. How could she raise such an entitled shit of a kid? And Hawthorne codes her as some kind of magic sunflower child, he may as well have written her a halo. What’s more annoying than that? Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway)

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another American classic, another mopey privileged white dude. Jake Barnes spends the majority of The Sun Also Rises feeling very sorry for himself because his dick hasn’t worked since the war. I guess travelling the world, drinking and adventuring with friends, just isn’t enough for some people. His little problem apparently stops him from pursuing a love affair with his girl-crush Brett – and she just goes along with it! I don’t understand! This is such a solvable problem (haven’t they heard of cunnilingus? sheesh!), but they’d rather just sit around and whinge about it, with lots of long longing looks and stuff. Blegh! Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Beatrice (The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri)

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, we all know The Divine Comedy is split into three parts. Dante spends the first two of them telling us all about how hot this chick Beatrice is, and how he’s pretty much only going through all of this so he can hook up with her in heaven. And when he gets there, she’s a total bitch! She literally tells him not to look directly at her (because she’s so hot he’ll be blinded, apparently) and hangs shit on him for not being an angel already. Then, after this heaping serve of sass, she totally retreats, just stands around smiling meekly (and coughing! why so much coughing?!) for the rest of Paradiso. She’s rude, and annoying! Read my full review The Divine Comedy here.


I feel much better having got all these petty annoyances off my chest. You should give it a try! Who are your most annoying characters in literature? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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