Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 2)

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!

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, is also on The List), 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!).




Describe A Book In A Single Sentence

To celebrate publishing the first ten reviews here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’m going to have a crack at something different today. Taking my inspiration from a game I’ve seen floating around on Twitter (you can follow me there, if you like!), I’m going to try to describe each of those 10 books in a single sentence. If you can’t be bothered to read the reviews in full, consider this your complete “tl;dr” summary guide.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

A teenage girl is plucked from a life of obscure poverty to fight to the death in a reality show run by the evil dictator of a wealthy capital, and she wins (even though she spends half the time thinking about her love life).

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The author tells us how much he hates the Puritans over and over again, by having a no-good priest not only knock up a married woman but also let her endure the punishment for years while he escapes scot-free… until her husband returns.

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

300 pages of scandal, love and intrigue in the lives of two young women and the men around them, followed by 300 pages of men going to war, men dying, women crying, and long descriptions of fictional mansions (snore).

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

A 16-year-old girl living in the bush wrote a novel about a 16-year-old girl living in the bush, and how much she wanted a flashy career in the city instead of a stupid husband.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

The beautifully-written life story of a man who lived through the Victorian era, from his humble beginnings as the thorn in the side of a bastard stepfather to his happy ending as a successful writer with a wife who actually loves him.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

A nice Kansas family of four gets merked for no apparent reason, and the story only unravels through the long, drawn-out investigation and trial of the two perpetrators.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence

A wealthy paraplegic Lord takes it into his head that his wife should take herself some lovers and get knocked up, only when she does it with the gamekeeper he doesn’t like it so much, and they all end up miserable.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Grim Reaper tells the story of a young girl whose mother was taken by the Nazis; she learns to read hidden away in the basement of her foster family, and figures out quick-smart why you shouldn’t mouth off about Hitler.

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

A brilliant stream-of-consciousness depiction of a day in the life of a wealthy socialite, featuring a peripheral veteran who tops himself, which sounds great except that I’m not smart enough to follow it and most of it made no sense at all.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

An emo kid bails on his education and spends a few days wandering around New York, getting drunk and smoking cigarettes and chickening out of losing his virginity.

You know, that’s actually harder than you’d think! I probably spent more time working out how to describe books in a single sentence than I did writing the original reviews. Still, I thought I’d work up just one more for you so we can play a guessing game. This is a one-sentence review of the next week’s book… can you guess what it is?

A bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned, culminating in his death – at which point, he and his true love spend eternity haunting their old stomping grounds, while their surviving children enter into incestuous marriages.

If you know it, let me know in the comments (or tell everyone how clever you are over at KUWTP on Facbeook!). And please feel free to share any one-sentence reviews of your own, I’d love to hear them!




What Do We Think Of The Dymocks 101 For 2018?

Each year, members of the Dymocks Booklovers loyalty club cast their votes for the Top 101 books of the year. This list is typically varied, covering everything from classics to contemporary to cook-books (much like my very own List here on Keeping Up With The Penguins). Indeed, it was the Dymocks 101 (along with the Guardian’s Top 100 Books Written in English) that inspired this project. Last week, Dymocks announced the Top 101 books for 2018. There are a few favourites, a few surprises, and (I’m sure it comes as no surprise) I’ve got a lot of thoughts.

Dymocks Top 101 Books of 2018 - Keeping Up With The Penguins

#1 The Harry Potter Series (J.K. Rowling)

Now, that’s one heck of a resurgence! The Harry Potter series has been lingering around the Top 20 ever since it was released, but I don’t think anyone expected it to hit the number one spot again. Perhaps its renewed popularity can be attributed to the release of the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them film, but would that really have been enough to get the job done? Either way, it’s proof that J.K. has still got it!

#2 All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

All The Light We Cannot See took out the number one spot last year. I had fully expected its popularity to carry over to this year, but I suppose we can hardly blame Anthony Doer for dropping his spot to the series that achieved once-in-a-generation fame.

#6 The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is another previous winner (it took out the number one spot in 2016). I reviewed it myself just last week; I wasn’t the biggest fan, but I can understand its popularity, particularly among young adult readers. Besides, it’s good to see an Aussie author staying front and center, year after year!

#7 Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

So, I’m pretty sure Pride and Prejudice appears in every list of books ever: the best books, the best books written by women, the best love stories, the best social commentaries, and everything else you can imagine. It has definitely appeared in every Dymocks Top 101 list that I can recall, so it’s not going anywhere any time soon! Austen certainly has some dedicated fans, which is all the more impressive given that Pride and Prejudice was published over 200 years ago. Personally, I’ve had a patchy history with Pride and Prejudice (I’ve started and abandoned it no fewer than six times), but I’ve committed to reading it in full now that it appears on The List!

#10 To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

I am so, so glad to see To Kill A Mockingbird rank so highly! It has received a lot of attention lately, with the release of Go Set A Watchman (which, thankfully, does not appear in this top 101 – I’m hoping Dymocks Booklovers took into account the ethical concerns surrounding its publication when casting their votes). Plus, issues of racial injustice in the U.S. are coming to the fore on an unprecedented scale, and there was considerable controversy concerning this American classic having been banned in some school districts.

#12 1984 (George Orwell)

I can happily admit that 1984 absolutely got my vote this year – and every year! It is one of my long-time favourite books, and its ongoing – increasing! – relevance and poignancy is a testament to Orwell’s masterful writing. Plus, Orwell’s Animal Farm also appears in the Dymocks 101 for 2018 (coming in at #54).

#14 The Girl On The Train (Paula Hawkins)

I was a little surprised to see The Girl On The Train still ranking so highly, but I’m happy for Paula Hawkins – she worked really hard for years to achieve this kind of “overnight success”. In fairness, I do still see photos of this one all over Instagram, so it probably shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise after all 😉

#19 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)

Now this one was no surprise at all! Like Pride and Prejudice, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gets a spot on almost every best-of-books list ever. It has ranked highly in the Dymocks Top 101 once again, and – as further testament to its popularity – I can confirm that I’ve had a devil of a time finding it in secondhand bookstores! The best (or most popular) books are always impossible to find secondhand, because people just can’t bear to part with their copies. Fingers crossed I find it soon, so I can bring you a review!

#22 Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)

I was overjoyed to see Jane Eyre – probably moreso than any other book – in this year’s Dymocks 101. It is on my List, of course, and I recently read it for the first time. It is a beautiful, wonderful, timeless book, and I’m telling you right now it will be one of my life-long favourites. Plus, Charlotte is the only Brontë to score a spot, so I guess that settles any debate as to who is the superior sibling in that family! I was pretty shocked that Wuthering Heights didn’t take the honours, to be honest – personally, I think it pales in comparison, but from what I can tell it is the favourite of most contemporary Brontë readers. I guess you never can tell!

#23 The Martian (Andy Weir)

Andy Weir is living the dream. He self-published The Martian for free through his own website when he couldn’t attract the interest of major publishers, and now here he is, years later, with millions of book sales, a major motion film adaptation starring Matt Damon, and a coveted position on the Dymocks list. Plus, his book wasn’t half bad! Hats off to him 😉

#25 The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion)

I mention The Rosie Project not only because it’s on The List, but also because it’s one of my mother-in-law’s special favourites. I actually bought her a copy of the sequel, The Rosie Effect, for Christmas, and Graeme Simsion was kind enough to personally sign it for her. So, he’s clearly a top bloke!

#26 The Good People (Hannah Kent)

I’ve heard so much about The Good People since its release, and it sounds fucking fantastic! By all accounts, its spot in the Dymocks 101 is well-earned. In addition to countless reviews and features on literature blogs, I’ve also heard interviews with Hannah Kent that left me markedly impressed. Even without having read The Good People (yet!), I’ve already recommended it to friends; at this rate, it will definitely make The Next List.

#27 The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Ugh! The Great Gatsby is probably the only entry on this top 101 list that made me recoil. My review of this contender for the great American novel is coming soon, but for now suffice it to say I wasn’t a huge fan. I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about! It’s an unpopular opinion, sure, but I stand by it. Clearly, given its ranking, not many other booklovers feel the same way!

#32 Reckoning (Magda Szubanski)

Reckoning is another book under consideration for The Next List – unfortunately, it came out just a bit too late for the original compilation. Had it come out just a few months later, you can be sure it would have made the cut! For my international friends who might not be familiar, Magda Szubanski is a beloved actress and comedian here in Australia. She came out just before our ridiculous plebiscite vote on marriage equality last year, and she became the de-facto face of the Yes movement (which was, of course, gloriously successful!). Magda is revered as an absolute goddess in my social circles, with good reason. I really wish her memoir had ranked higher in the Dymocks 101, but I consider her inclusion a win for the LGBTIQ community regardless!

#44 The Song of Ice and Fire Series (George R. R. Martin)

Much like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, The Song of Ice And Fire series is pretty much guaranteed a spot on the Dymocks 101 for many years to come, thanks to the incredibly popular small-screen adaptation (Game of Thrones). Say what you will about GoT fans, they’re a dedicated bunch!

#50 milk and honey (Rapi Kaur)

Rapi Kaur actually managed to score two books in the Top 101 – her debut, milk and honey, and also the follow up, the sun and her flowers (which came in at #86). Say what you will about her style and technique, I think it’s fucking incredible that two contemporary books of poetry have reached this level of popularity! Through Rupi Kaur, an entire generation is basically discovering representative poetry (Rupi Kaur probably being the first non-white non-male poet that they’ve read since they were forced to study the “classics” in high school), and it’s luring them to explore and purchase more poetry. That’s never a bad thing!

#71 Victoria (Julia Baird)

I’ve got to be honest: I wouldn’t normally pick up a biography of a dead monarch (especially one as done-to-death as Queen Victoria), but I’ve heard about half a dozen interviews with Julia Baird now and gosh-darn-it she has just about convinced me this would be a worthwhile read! She is insightful, conscientious, meticulous, and bloody hilarious! Those qualities, coupled with a recommendation from her friend (and my hero) Anabelle Crabbe, are the best marketing that Victoria could get.

#74 The Alchemist (Paolo Cohelo)

This book will never die! Every hippie I’ve ever met has strongly recommended that I read The Alchemist, and sure enough I’ve heeded their advice and included it on The List. If I remember correctly, in past years The Alchemist has featured much higher in the Dymocks 101, but regardless of the rank, it’s sticking like glue!

#76 The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Richard Flanagan)

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North is probably one of the more literary inclusions in the Top 101, and also in my own List. I recently learned that it was the Man Booker Prize winner of 2014, which will make it my first Man Booker read (ever!)… when I get around to it 😉

#77 My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

If I’m being frank, I’m of the firm belief that My Brilliant Friend deserved a much higher spot on the Dymocks 101. The first of the Neapolitan Series from Elena Ferrante was beautiful, in every respect. Even in the English translation, it retained the lyrical rhythm of the original Italian, and depicted (with incredible raw honesty and insight) the coming-of-age of a young woman in trying circumstances. I think, in the future, we will look back on My Brilliant Friend as a literary classic, so here’s hoping that it gets more love from Dymocks Booklovers in coming years.

#82 The Dressmaker (Rosalie Ham)

Again: Aussie authors are doing it for themselves! Woo! I’m really happy about that (shamelessly so), but… I’m kind of surprised at the lasting power of this strangely gothic novel. The Dressmaker has endured for eighteen years so far, despite its esoteric setting (a fictional small Australian country town in the 1950s) and distinctly un-happy ending. So, three cheers for Rosalie Ham! I’m not sure I understand how or why, but she has truly captured the hearts of Australian booklovers.

#94 Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

I must say, I’m surprised to see Little Fires Everywhere so far down the Top 101 – probably because I feel like I see it everywhere! Instagram has thousands upon thousands of photos of its distinctive cover, it’s topped so many best-reads lists I can’t even count them all, and it has been reviewed (glowingly) in every major publication that pops up in my inbox. Celeste Ng is fucking slaying it at the moment, and I’m sure next year we’ll see this one in the Top 20.

#98 Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo)

I love, love, love this concept – stories about fabulous, ground-breaking, unruly women who have forged ahead in their fields and changed the world, written for young girls who would otherwise be forced to resort to fairy tales and Disney movies. There has been a spate of publications in this vein, but Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is the original and the best. It just scraped in to the Dymocks 101, but I am so glad to see it there at all! If you have young children (boy, girl, or otherwise), be sure to pick this one up for them; foster a love of reading and accurate representation of women in one fell swoop!

General Comments

Unsurprisingly, we can see a lot of film adaptations appearing in the Top 101. In addition to the ones I’ve listed above, Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale – both of which had fantastic television adaptations aired over the last 18 months – made the top ten. Furthermore, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Call Me By Your Name (books adapted to films released in the last 6 months, both coincidentally focusing on young gay characters) made the top fifty, which I think is just fucking excellent. Representation matters!

On that note, I was surprised at how few of the standard straight-white-middle-class-male-authored classics made the cut. There was no Dickens, no Twain, no Steinbeck, no Beckett… I’m not sure if this means that Australian booklovers are demanding greater representation and diversity in their reading lists, or whether the team at Dymocks made some executive decisions. Either way, while I’m secretly disappointed that David Copperfield didn’t rate a mention, it’s great to see more diversity on the shelves at the front of the store! (I should mention, though, that while eight of the top ten, and 53% of the list overall, were written by women, but only roughly 10% were written by POC. Stats on other types of representation are tricky to come by!)

On a different note, I feel compelled to mention that one of my favourite things about this year’s Dymocks 101 is that it doesn’t feature a single cookbook! When Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals (or whatever) reached the top 50, it felt like a betrayal of what the list was about. In their absence, there are almost no entries that I outright disagree with (aside from maybe The Great Gatsby, as I mentioned, but I’m a big enough person to acknowledge that that’s a matter of my personal taste rather than the quality of the work.)

What did you think of the Dymocks 101? Did your special favourites make the list? Any glaring omissions as far as you’re concerned? Let me know in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!)


Yummy! Best Books for Chocolate Lovers

Here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, Easter means two things: an extra-long weekend, and chocolate. Fun fact: I’m actually not a huge chocolate person myself (as I get older, I get more and more excited about cheese, and chocolate ends up languishing in my fridge for months), but even I can muster up some excitement for a bunny on Easter Sunday.

For the chocolate lovers out there, though, I know that this weekend is basically your Grand Final. Out of respect, this week I have pulled together something special, just for you: a list of the best books for chocolate lovers!

Best Books for Chocolate Lovers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The True History of Chocolate – Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe

Firstly, you must check this one out, if for no other reason than the heartbreaking story behind it! Sophie D. Coe was an author and anthropologist; her lifelong passion project was to write the definitive history of chocolate. She had long been fascinated by food and culinary history, and she spent years burying herself in the research. Suddenly, she was diagnosed with cancer, and given a prognosis of not-enough-time to finish her work. Her husband, Michael, promised to finish it on her behalf :O

The end result is this: a comprehensive discussion of all elements of the history of chocolate, drawing on everything from botany, to archaeology, to culinary history. The authors correct a bunch of misconceptions, they go into great details about the origins and significance of “the food of the gods”, and they even chuck in a few recipes. It’s rather academic, so it might come off as dry if you’re not accustomed to that style of writing, but if you’re desperate to know everything there is to know about the history of chocolate, this is the one for you!

Chocolat – Joanne Harris

Don’t worry, this list isn’t all heavy non-fiction reads! Joanne Harris’s story of a single mother opening a chocolaterie, right across the street from a Church on the first day of Lent, is probably the best known chocolate-based novel of the present age. It sparked a flurry of interest in “culinary fiction” and a highly-commended film. Harris’s protagonist takes on a small French town’s Christian conservatives, pushing back against their traditions of denial and deprivation with chocolate (and, yes, a little bit of magic). A fun, romantic read for the season!

Chocolate Wars – Deborah Cadbury

Even if you skipped over The True History of Chocolate with an eye-roll, surely a tell-all book by one of the Cadburys has to catch your attention! Chocolate Wars is an incredibly detailed exposé of the fierce business rivalry in the chocolate market over the last 150 years, culminating in a multi-billion dollar showdown threatening the dynasty’s Quaker roots. The business-minded reader will love how Cadbury expands into discussions about the importance of advertising and brand management, as well as the pitfalls of profit motive. For the rest of us, it’s just a delicious insight into those ubiquitous purple bars.

Chocolate Nations – Orla Ryan

I can’t, in good conscience, put together a list like this without paying at least some attention to the hard economic realities of chocolate, and how they impact the lives of tens of thousands around the world. Ryan’s amazing book examines the West African cocoa trade from a variety of perspective, pulls apart the logistics of the “fairtrade” label, and gives a fresh perspective on the role of governments and multinationals in the whole mess. It’s not fun to think about, but the fact is that many children work in slavery and many farmers live in poverty so that we can have Easter eggs. Chocolate Nations might be a bummer, but it’s also provocative and eye-opening. Just some food for thought 😉

Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

OK, back to the fun stuff! Like Water For Chocolate had massive popularity in Spanish-speaking countries when it was released in 1989, and has since been translated into a bunch of other languages so the rest of us can enjoy it too. Set in Mexico, it follows the story of a young girl named Tita. Tita pines after her lover (Pedro), but their romance is impeded by her mother’s strict enforcement of the family tradition (that the youngest daughter must never marry, and instead care for her mother until she dies). Tita’s only escape is through her cooking, and each chapter commences with a fantastic (real!) Mexican recipe. A telenovela for your eyes and your stomach!

Dying for Chocolate – Diane Mott Davidson

This one is probably not the most intellectual read, but it’s light and easy, and full of food porn! Dying for Chocolate is part of a series of “culinary mysteries” featuring protagonist Goldy Bear (no, I’m not kidding, that’s seriously what Davidson called her). The bright, determined Goldy has escaped an abusive ex-husband and transplanted her catering business to the Aspen Meadow Country Club. All seems to be going well, until the death of a yummy doctor strikes Goldy as a bit suspicious, and she decides to do some detective-ing. Pick this one up if you want something silly and fun to demolish over the long weekend.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

You didn’t think we could have a list of best books for chocolate lovers without including the holy text, did you? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published back in 1964, so it has well and truly passed the test of time. Chocolate lovers everywhere rejoice in the tale of poor Charlie Bucket, plucked from obscurity and carrying his golden ticket all the way to the bizarre factory of eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of swimming in his chocolate river?

If you read it one too many times as a kid and find it a bit played out, maybe give the lesser-known sequel (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator) a try.

Is your mouth watering? Mine is! What are you reading over Easter? Are you sticking with the chocolate theme, or are you trying something different? Let me know in the comments below (or update us at KUWTP on Facebook!).




What The Smut? Books That Are Sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed the granddady of modern erotica, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I was (very) disappointed to report that it wasn’t anywhere near as dirty as it promised on the label. As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of literary smut. I think its poor reputation is a travesty, and I’ve never understood why books about violence are held in such high regard while books about sexuality are relegated to the status of gutter trash. I have way more fun tallying up how many euphemisms an author can find for “penis” and “vagina” than I do reading about white men shooting each other with big guns.

So, rather than rehashing the disappointments of Lady C, I want to celebrate literary smut by giving you some decent alternatives: here’s a list of books that are sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover (who knows, you might pick up some sexting tips to impress your next conquest).

Books That Are Sexier Than Lady Chatterley's Lover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Bride Stripped Bare – Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell)

The Bride Stripped Bare was one of the first dirty books that I ever got my hands on. I borrowed it from a friend, and read it in shameful secret. It was originally published anonymously in 2003, but Australian author Nikki Gemmell was quickly outed. It was the best-selling book by an Australian author that year. The story is told through the diary of a young wife, sexually frustrated by the boredom of marital obligation. She takes on a secret life, full of fellatio and other frisky exploits, including one particularly torrid hotel-room encounter with a group of taxi drivers. This one’s great for beginners, but aimed squarely at the ladies.

Fanny Hill: or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (John Cleland)

Bear in mind that Cleland was in debtors’ prison as he wrote Fanny Hill, so you can imagine the kind of filth he came up with when he had that kind of time on his hands. Fanny Hill was first published in 1748, and is widely considered to be the first original English prose pornography. It is also one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history, which is unsurprising given its frank exploration of masturbation, lesbianism, voyeurism, and anal sex. The titular character is a rich, middle-aged English woman, writing to her unnamed friend (referred to only as “Madam”) about the scandalous adventures of her youth. It will definitely remind you that the 20th century didn’t invent smut.

The Story of O – Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos)

If you were looking for Fifty Shades of Grey on this list, you might want to give up now. Think of this book as the gorgeous, intelligent, successful and all-round superior cousin of E.L. James’ clusterfuck of a novel. The erotic Story of O was published in 1954 under the pen name Pauline Réage; the true author (Anne Desclos) did not reveal herself as such for over 40 years, so you know the book must be good. She later claimed she wrote it as a series of love letters to her lover Jean Paulhan. It is the tale of a Parisian woman (named, funnily enough, O) who explores her submissive tendencies by making herself constantly and completely sexually available for any man who belongs to the same secret society as her lover. There’s blindfolds, chains, whips, piercings, the works! Not for the faint of heart…

Delta of Venus – Anaïs Nin

Ah, Anaïs, the darling of sex-positive feminists everywhere! This book of fifteen short stories was only published (posthumously) in 1977, but it was originally conceived in the 1940s as a collection of erotica commissioned by a private collector. Yes, a wealthy man actually paid her to write smut for his own personal use. Even though he gave Anaïs strict instructions to focus on the filth and cut out all the poetic nonsense, she still managed to write with a literary flourish that maintains its beauty and relevance some eight decades later. This one is for the women who want to enjoy sex and rule the world.

Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer appears on every single list of literary books with dirty bits, and I’m proud to say it appears on The List here at Keeping Up With The Penguins as well (review coming soon!). Ostensibly, it’s a novel based on Miller’s own life as a struggling writer, but it is famous (or infamous?) for its many graphic passages that explicitly describe his many sexual encounters. In fact, the obscenity trials triggered by the publication of Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. challenged American pornography laws in such a way that it can be credited with at least partial responsibility for the freedom of speech they now enjoy. Reading Tropic of Cancer isn’t just titillating, it’s a political act! 😉

Some of the language is pretty full-on, and there’s some hints at homophobia, so reader beware if you’re looking to protect your delicate sensibilities. Still, Miller was famously the lover of the aforementioned darling Anaïs Nin, so he can’t have been all bad, eh?

Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos

And, finally, this list of sexy books wouldn’t be complete without an honourable mention to Dangerous Liasons (or Les Liaisons dangereuses, in the original French): the filth that launched a thousand homages. It is the story of two staunch rivals, former lovers, who weaponise their sexuality and seduce their acquaintances in order to gain social control. They revel in their exploitation of others, they take glee in their cruelty, and they boast endlessly about their respective talents. It’s sex and power, all day every day, and we can see the influence of de Laclos’s work in all manner of popular culture today.

And there you have it: a bunch of books sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover, all of which are guaranteed to make you blush (at least a little). Will you admit to your favourite literary smut? Go on, tell me in the comments below (or, if you’re really brave, leave a comment at KUWTP on Facebook!).




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