Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 1 of 2)

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I love a good sleeper hit. You know those books that have been out for a while without a fuss, then they start gathering steam, and all of a sudden they’re everywhere you look? That’s what happened with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Once upon a time, Backman was a quiet little Swedish blogger, and A Man Called Ove (or, in the original Swedish, En man som heter Ove) was his debut novel. It was published in 2012, translated into English in 2013, but didn’t reach the New York Times Bestseller List until eighteen months later. Once it got there, it stayed there for 42 weeks. And, here’s some more fun trivia: it’s an even bigger, even more-unexpectedly huge best seller in South Korea (not even his publisher quite understands why). Sometimes, miracles happen, eh?

This English language edition – which has sold over three million copies around the world, by the way – was translated by Henning Koch. Remember: always #NameTheTranslator!

It begins with an especially-curmudgeonly old-before-his-time 59-year-old man, called Ove (in case you missed it). He’s been having a rough trot. He’s still mourning the loss of his wife, and recently found himself forced into early retirement. Lacking any purpose or intention for the rest of his life, he plans to die by suicide. As fate would have it, on the day of his planned departure from this mortal coil, an exuberant young family moves in next door.

Ove has always lived by a set of pragmatic principles and strict routines. When the newcomers knock over his mailbox trying to back in their trailer, he just about blows a gasket. Parvaneh is a pregnant mother of two, and Patrick is her partner who really struggles with parking. Ove finds them bothersome and tiresome and just about every other -some adjective you can imagine a grumpy old man throwing at a couple of kids just trying to find their way in the world. When they mess up his plans to die, he stubbornly refuses to accept the divine intervention, and makes a new plan… until it happens again. And again.





Look, I know this doesn’t sound like the stuff of great comic novels. A lonely old guy trying to off himself? Complete with wacky neighbours and hijinks? Indeed, Backman had trouble finding a publisher at first. Based on his pitch, they said the book had “no commercial potential”, and that Ove was too unlikeable, too much of a Debbie Downer. Reader, they were very, very wrong. I was howling with laughter from page one. I was sending snaps of the funniest bits to my friends by page twelve. And then, about half way through, my eyes got a bit wet. And then it happened again, a little further on. By the end of A Man Called Ove, I’d used up half a box of tissues, and my cheeks, my chin, and my shirt front were all wet, too. Backman is uniquely skilled at the art of getting the reader to care more than they thought they would. He’s managed to make the old man’s cynicism and indignation endearing. Ove, stick-in-the-mud as he may be, feels disconnected and lost – who can’t relate to that? And he finds, in his new neighbours, new purpose (mostly to tell them how they’re doing it all wrong) – who can’t relate to that, too?

As Ove’s relationship with his new neighbours develops, so unfolds his backstory, one so heart-wrenching and wonderful and evocative that it sings in perfect harmony with the rest of the novel. I never once felt like I was being pulled back and forth in the timeline, or emotionally manipulated, because Backman knew just how hard to push, and when to back away. What I loved most of all was that it was brimming with my favourite type of whimsical, misanthropic humour, much along the lines of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, my ultimate cheer-up read. A Man Called Ove is darker in its contents and themes, perhaps, but it’s definitely the same “vibe”.





There’s been a movie adaptation of A Man Called Ove (and also a stage production) – I watched the trailer on YouTube, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out to watch in full. I just can’t imagine how the comedy, so dark and perfect on the page, could translate to the screen. Backman has also since written several other novels, though (he’s now officially “Sweden’s most popular literary export since Stieg Larsson”), and I’m particularly interested to check out My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.

I’d love to recommend this as a book club read, but I feel like there’s a very good chance every book club in the world has read it already – once again, I’m late to the party. A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them – and I think we could all do with a few more of those.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Man Called Ove:

  • “i was looking for an uplifting book and this was recommended. 10+ chapters of a man who dislikes everyone and wants to kill himself is definitely NOT an easy listening or feel good read. i might be only slightly encouraged by the realization that i am markedly happier and nicer than Ove.” – Appalasia Farm
  • “Sad, but uplifting” – Geoff Burdge
  • “Signed my wife up for an Audible account. But she hated it. Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever.” – Argyle Shopper
  • “I could not wait for Ove to be Over.” – Marty


The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown (but the trope itself has existed far longer). Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the King and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind. We all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


Less – Andrew Sean Greer

On my journey out of the post-Ulysses haze, I found myself unsurprisingly in the mood for some “light” reading. Big Little Lies was a page turner, don’t get me wrong, but there weren’t a whole lot of laughs to be had amidst all the rape, abuse, and manslaughter. Browsing my shelves, I happened upon a little light blue spine: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It piqued my interest, as I knew it to be a unicorn: an #ownvoices comedy that had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

You might wonder how I knew it was a comedy, #ownvoices or otherwise, and to answer that I’ll give you a short excerpt from an event I attended at the Sydney Writer’s Festival that year, Andrew Sean Greer in conversation with local legend David Marr:

Marr: “Look, I don’t know how familiar you are with Australian English. Do you know the meaning of the word ‘fuckwit’?”

[audience laughs]

Greer: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that.”

Marr: “It means ‘fool’. It’s a vivid local piece of patois to mean ‘fool’.”

Greer: “Wonderful! ‘Fuckwit’?”

Marr: “Yes, fuckwit. Because the hero of your book is, it appears, for a good deal of the book, a complete fuckwit.”

And with that, I was formally introduced to the protagonist, Arthur Less – the one that David Marr described as a fuckwit, in tones of great affection (as Australians are wont to do). On that basis alone, I was inclined to give Less a go. I also noticed that one of the highly complimentary blurbs on my edition came from none other than my girl, Karen Joy Fowler. That settled it: I had to read this book.

Arthur Less worries that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old” (which made me laugh… until I thought about the heavier connotations, “old” gays being the only ones who survived the AIDS crisis, not so funny). He finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time fuck-buddy dumps him to marry a far more eligible (and age appropriate) bachelor. Arthur Less decides that he must act. He can’t RSVP “no” to the nuptials and admit defeat, but he couldn’t possibly attend either, especially with his own 50th birthday looming… so, he proceeds to accept every half-baked invitation he’s received to literary events around the world, and sends his ex his regrets, citing “unfortunate” prior engagements.

And there we have it: this fuckwit is relatable as all hell. Planning a round-the-world trip on the spur of the moment to avoid an awkward social encounter? Big mood!





This premise gives Greer the opportunity to absolutely tear shreds off the literary world through satire. He never misses an opportunity to lampoon the self-reverential ridiculousness of it all. Arthur Less is “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”. His first stop is New York, where he chairs an event for a wildly successful and seriously overrated sci-fi writer (Less suspects he was the only author desperate enough to do the gig for free). Then, he joins a panel at a festival in Mexico, only to learn that all the preeminent guests are dead. In Italy, a generous translation of his debut novel wins an award, judged by a committee of high school students. On and on it goes…

The episodic structure also allows Greer to parade a series of colourful characters through Arthur Less’s voyage of self-discovery, BUT – I hasten to add – this isn’t your standard white-guy-sees-the-world-and-comes-home-transformed narrative. Greer is very careful not to fetishise the “exotic locals”. Arthur Less, the fuckwit, is always the butt of the joke. And his “self-discovery” seems almost accidental. He didn’t set out with any intention of transformation, he just wanted to avoid his ex’s wedding, and his personal growth is just a side-effect of his bumbling adventures.

My favourite part: Arthur Less accepts a visiting professor post at a university in Germany. He teaches a class called “Read Like A Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein”. It becomes immediately clear to the reader and everyone else that Arthur Less’s insistence that he is “fluent” in German is a complete delusion. Hilarious!





The narration feels very personal, a conversational third-person perspective, or so we think. In a Vanity Fair-esque twist, we learn towards the end that the story is being told by… shall we say, a friend of Arthur Less (for once, I won’t give spoilers – I don’t want to ruin the fun!). I think that’s the key, that’s what makes Less work. Arthur Less is so lovelorn, so self-pitying, such a sad sack, that Less would not have worked if told from his own point of view. It would have been morose and miserable and flat-out annoying. As it stands, though, Less is a very literary comedy. Even when the humour is slapstick, Greer manages to write it in a clever and challenging way. This is a book that could work equally well as a beach read and a citation in your thesis.

That was the whole idea, of course. Greer said that he began writing Less as a “very serious” novel, but he soon figured out that the only way to write about the miseries of an ageing, gay writer (as an ageing, gay writer) was to make it funny. This is a realisation that Arthur Less has himself in the book, too. I really dig this determinedly self-deprecating approach. It lets Greer parody all the priviliged-white-American-abroad tropes, to my great delight.

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, Less also spent an unbelievably long time on the New York Times Best Seller List, and even won the 2019 Australian Book Industry Award for International Book Of The Year. All of this is to say that Less is both a critical and a popular success. Greer has certainly won a fan in me! I highly recommend this book, particularly to fans of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, or anyone in need of a chuckle and a little heart-warming.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Less:

  • “I was expecting more.” – Peter Boyd
  • “My whole book club did not like this book. I liked the writing about the different cities.” – Elaine M. Bloom
  • “I never write book reviews but good god, what a complete dump of a book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I read it. It was a book.” – M D White
  • “Some humorous lines, but not worthy of such praise. I really don’t get all the accolades… guess I am less understanding.” – Nance T Lodge
  • “Less less less less less less less
    Lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser
    Least least least least least least least.” – Mike F.
  • “I am an avid reader . I usually love Pulitzer Prize winners. I did not think this book was very special.” – Maria G. Fitzpatrick
  • “Love the ending. [SPOILER ALERT] it’s basically the gay, prose version of Taylor Swift’s “How You Get The Girl”” – Joyce Reneau


A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man is a short novel, first published in 1964, by American author Christopher Isherwood. It tells the story of a day in the life of – you guessed it – a single man, George. He’s a middle-aged professor at a Los Angeles university, still grieving the recent loss of his partner, Jim. You wouldn’t think that it’s a funny story, but this slim volume was chockers full of darkly comic moments that had me literally laughing out loud.

A Single Man is different from Isherwood’s other books. In his own words, it’s “the only book of mine where I did more or less what I wanted to do”. The others (including Goodbye To Berlin) famously drew upon his time teaching English in Germany, where he witnessed first-hand the rise of the Nazis. But it was later, in the ’50s, that he started drafting a film script, then titled The Day’s Journey. It was that project that eventually became A Single Man.

He sought to pay homage to Mrs Dalloway (which he called “one of the most truly beautiful novels or prose poems or whatever that I have read”), fashioning it as a day in the life of an English woman; indeed, a later draft was re-titled The Englishwoman. All of these ideas bubbled away on the back-burner of his brain for years. In a diary entry from 1962 (ten years after he began), he records that his lover, Don Bachardy, suggested changing the gender of the central character and making the story more autobiographical. Don later said publicly that he thought Isherwood had written an imagined version of what might happen if they were ever separated. He also said that the writer was “very difficult and very tiresome” to live with as he completed the novel – ooh, snap!

Even though it sounds like Don had a major influence on A Single Man, Isherwood actually dedicated it to Gore Vidal. Vidal, in turn, called Isherwood “the best prose writer in English”. Take this as an important lesson, would-be novelists: if you want renowned intellectuals to say nice things about you, just dedicate a good book to them. That’ll do the trick!

My Vintage edition has a nice, short introduction, written by Tom Ford – yes, the fashion designer, but also the creative mind behind the movie adaptation starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. It’s a touching, personal tribute to Isherwood and his work, without being overwrought or overdone.



So, to the story itself: A Single Man begins when George’s day begins, waking up, going about the usual coffee and ablutions. Right away, I found it hard to believe Isherwood was writing in 1964 – it felt so contemporary, almost timeless. George is despondent, bereaved, mourning a lover he couldn’t publicly declare (remember, back in the day, even being “out” wasn’t being out). And yet, Isherwood writes in such a cool and dispassionate way that George’s bitterness and misanthropy comes across as hilarious and matter-of-fact.

“George feels a bowel movement coming on with agreeable urgency, and climbs the stairs briskly to the bathroom, book in hand.”

Page 7, A Single Man

Throughout the course of his day, George meets and interacts with the people around him, his thoughts and feelings constantly coloured by his grief. He teaches a class, tries to skip a social engagement (and fails), works out, goes to the supermarket, has a drink with a friend, and engages in an illicit flirtation with one of his students. All the while, he tries his best not to present himself to the world as a grieving widower – because, of course, he can’t, and in the eyes of the law, he isn’t one. Still, his sense of loss consumes his every waking moment.

Now, what makes all of this particularly heart-wrenching (spoiler alert, etc. etc.) is that we find out in the final pages that this day is actually the last day of George’s life. The plot fades to black, in a sense. I know that sounds trope-y or cliche, but I swear to Oprah it doesn’t read that way. Isherwood writes it really well, and he knew it, too – he called A Single Man his masterpiece. Most people are surprised to hear that, thinking that Goodbye To Berlin or one of his other more popular works would rank above, but I’m sure he was right.

I really enjoyed A Single Man. It’s a quick read, but a powerful and moving one. All of that heart-wrenching and grief-striking is counterbalanced with humour and insight. I laughed out loud a lot, as I said, but maybe take my reaction with a grain of salt. After all, I have a pretty dark sense of humour, so maybe I responded with more mirth than most readers would. Still, if you’re looking for a shining gem of a book to squeeze into your limited reading time, this one would be perfect.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Single Man:

  • “Sad story with no plot that just kept getting sadder. Very hard to read.” – jared abrahamse
  • “‘A Single Man’ was a homosexual who lost his lover due to an accident…Homosexuals suffer a lost just like everyone else, but perhaps it may be more difficult and stressful since the relationship may be closeted” – Beverly Guardino

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Well, well, well: wasn’t this a pleasant surprise? When I picked up this copy of The Grapes Of Wrath (another secondhand bargain, once belonging to a “William Lang” who was kind enough to keep it in pretty good nick for me), I didn’t have high hopes. I’d just read two white-men-talking-to-each-other-about-power stories back-to-back (reviews here and here), and I figured I’d be in for more of the same. But, once again, this project up-ends my expectations: I loved Steinbeck’s story, more than I could have imagined! I think it’s another happy coincidence, coming to a book at the right time; this story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world.

Steinbeck was no slouch in the writing game. The Grapes Of Wrath took home a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The story begins with Tom Joad, a recent parolee, returning home to Oklahoma. On his way, he runs into Jim Casy, a former preacher, and they decide to travel together. When they make it to Tom’s family home, they find the farm deserted, and an old neighbour tells them that the Joad clan has gone to stay at another farm nearby, the banks having evicted almost everyone in the area.

In fact, the Joads – who are pretty much penniless, the Dust Bowl having destroyed their crops – are loading up a truck they intend to drive to California. They’ve heard there’s work aplenty there, and the pay is decent, so it seems as good an idea as any (and, well, they ain’t got a lot of options). Even though leaving Oklahoma will violate his parole, Tom jumps in with them, and convinces Jim to come along for the ride.



I was particularly impressed with the way Steinbeck used dialect. It felt very readable, fluid, natural – and even though he was effectively writing about “hicks” and “rednecks”, to use the pejorative terms, he didn’t once condescend to Southerners or make a spectacle of them.

The Joads quickly learn that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. They encounter many migrant groups living in makeshift camps along their route, all with horrible stories about the true nature of the life and work on Californian farms. One-by-one, the Joads start to exit the story: Grandpa dies, then Grandma (with poor old Ma Joad riding with her corpse in the back of the truck for hours before alerting the others, to ensure they made it to California without delay), eldest son Noah leaves them, and then Connie bolts too (he’s the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon – and yes, that’s her real given name, but she’s most often referred to as “Rosasharn”). Oh, and the dog dies. The Grapes Of Wrath is a pretty traumatic read, on the whole.

You might be thinking that Tom Joad is the hero of this story, but you’d be wrong. Ma Joad is the star of the show. She’s now one of my favourite characters in all of American literature. It’s under her leadership that the Joad family continues to seek work and make the best of their shitty circumstances. Pa Joad, the “head of the house”, is completely demoralised and basically useless, so Ma Joad takes the reins and does a damn fine job. They would have been completely screwed without her (well, they were still pretty screwed, but less so for Ma Joad being an incredible kick-arse matriarch).



Anyway, when they make it to California, they find a very saturated labour market, meaning most families are forced to work for a pittance and exploited to the point of literal starvation. Steinbeck really went all-out, he shat on capitalism from a great height. Jim Casy takes it upon himself to unionise the workers, co-ordinating a strike, but it all ends in tears when a police confrontation turns violent (Steinbeck also hated cops, it would seem). Tom witnesses Casy’s fatal beating, and takes his vengeance, killing the cop. He winds up back on the run, a murderous fugitive once again.

Ma Joad doesn’t let a little thing like her son’s homicidal tendencies slow them down. She makes Tom promise that he will use his lucky break, having escaped arrest, to fight for workers’ rights and end the oppression that is quite literally killing the working class. The Joads continue on, finding more work at a cotton farm, but this is a things-go-from-bad-to-worse story, so strap in. George R.R. Martin ain’t got nothin’ on Steinbeck, honestly – Georgie has a high body count, sure, but Steinbeck tortures and starves his characters in the most twisted of ways.

Rose Of Sharon’s bun in the oven dings, and she labours for hours on the floor of the shack they’re calling home. Her baby, sadly, is stillborn. I had literal tears welling in my eyes; I’m normally a tough nut to crack, but these scenes were absolutely devastating. Ma Joad holds it together (because of course she does) and lucky she does, because an almighty storm blows up and floodwaters inundate the area. The family has to bail on the shack, and seek shelter in a barn up the road. There, they find a young boy and his father, also not in a good way. The young boy is dying, he hasn’t eaten in forever, and Rose of Sharon – at Ma Joad’s prompting – offers him her breastmilk, saving his life. It is truly one of the most haunting passages I have ever read. And also, it’s The End.



I felt like I’d been punched! The Grapes Of Wrath, with that fucking ending, was so damn good that I started getting angry. Why had no one in my life who had read it warned me what was coming?! Gah!

The only thing that soured my experience of reading this Great American Novel was finding out later that Steinbeck ripped off a woman (naturally). It would seem that he “borrowed” heavily from the notes of Farm Security Administration worker Sanora Babb, who was researching migrant families with a view to writing her own book in 1938. Her boss showed her work to Steinbeck, and the rest is why-do-women-keep-getting-screwed-over-and-over history. The publication and popularity of The Grapes Of Wrath scuppered any hopes that Babb had of getting her own work out there. Her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, and she died the following year.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Steinbeck also has his wife to thank for the book’s iconic title. He was struggling to come up with anything himself, then she suggested The Grapes Of Wrath, having read the phrase near the end of Chapter 25 where Steinbeck described the purposeful destruction of food to keep demand (and profits) high:

“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Chapter 25

And she nailed it: that line really captures what The Grapes Of Wrath is all about. It’s a story of the potential for a working class revolt, how the seeds of a revolution are sown. Steinbeck said that, in writing the novel, he wanted “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” (“this” being the Great Depression and its domino effect). That’s why the book has been so powerful and popular with supporters of the workers’ movement.



Its publication “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event”, later reports claimed. The Grapes Of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, and it was debated and discussed at length in all manner of public and private forums. Many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries attacked his social and political views as expressed through his story of the Joads, but he did not give one single fuck. All the controversy just led to more book sales.

The Grapes Of Wrath feels timeless, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can all find something familiar in a story about automation, and climate change, and the feelings of powerlessness and fear they inspire. Save for a few technological advancements, I would completely believe that this was a contemporary novel set in the present day. If you’re in the mood to say Fuck The Man! but also want to read a heart-wrenching and beautiful family story, you need to pick up a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath and get stuck in.

Note: The Grapes Of Wrath was SO GOOD that it made the cut for my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Grapes Of Wrath:

  • “My package arrived empty. I would like a refund, but have nothing to return.” – Amie Majerus
  • “I had to read this book in high school. I hope English teachers aren’t still forcing teenagers to read this book, but they probably are. I still think about the ending sometimes and wonder if there was something wrong with John Steinbeck.” – Janette
  • “Bought this book thinking I would learn how to make a nice bitter wine for a get together for me and my gal pals… But it’s just a book about people traveling in the depression. I was expecting some grapes being angry. Also there are no grapes in this book whatsoever!!” – Amazon Customer
  • “I have been reading books that won Pulitzer prizes. I’m very happy with most of them. This one is terrible. The author, John Steinbeck, commented “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Thanks for nothing. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags. And that’s why I give this book the lowest possible score.



    The point of the story is that rich bastards are bastards. Got it. Agreed. Bastards are bastards. Got it. I don’t want to go on this journey. It’s like the old Mr. Bill skits on Saturday Nite Live. Do you remember Mr. Bill? Everything horrible happens to Mr. Bill. That’s what this book is. Mr. Bill.

    

I will happily join your revolution but I will not read your book to the end. It’s too messed up. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags.” – LF

  • “One of the boringest published novels I’ve ever laid eyes on.” – C. Cross
  • “So, I’m only on page 478 of 619, but I’ve been disgusted at the amount of profanity. So far I’ve found more than 500 uses of profanity! On average every page (with relatively big writing, even) has more than one swear. Yikes!

    

I’m never going to read Grapes of Wrath again, and won’t be recommending it to anyone.

If you don’t like profanity, be careful.” – Jef4Jesus

  • “This book was 600 pages written purly about a bunch of hicks from Oklahoma starving. Thanks, but no thanks,” – M. Landis

P.S. Never forget this pearler of a tweet from publisher Antonio French during the Trump campaign:


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Warning: this review might get a little ranty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel written by Anita Loos, first published in 1925 – one of several novels published that year that are famous for their depictions of the Jazz Age in America. It’s a travesty that this wonderful, hilarious, insightful book lives under the inconceivably large shadow cast by The Great Gatsby. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge success immediately upon publication; the entire first print run sold out the first day it went into stores, it was a best-seller in thirteen different languages, and it counts among its fans James Joyce and Edith Wharton (who called it the Great American Novel). So, why is it always overlooked in discussions of the modern classics? Yet another example of how we value stories about and by men over those of women, hmph! (Yes, I’m getting ranty, I did warn you!)

The book’s full title is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, and this edition also contains its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which was published two years later. The introduction to this edition is quite good, and highly readable. It contains gems like:

“It could be said, therefore, that Loos did not write a version of Beauty and the Beast; instead, she rewrote Beauty as the Beast.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

And:

“The men who perpetually orbit around Lorelei and Dorothy have two major problems: they have too much money in their bank accounts and too much time on their hands. Lorelei and Dorothy are able to solve both their problems at once.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

Loos said she was inspired to write the book after watching her friend, intellectual H.L. Mencken, reduced to a character she likened to a love-struck schoolboy in the presence of a sexy blonde woman. Mencken was a good sport about it. He read her draft, loved it, and saw to its publication. Of the particular brand of humour she displays in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos said:

“In those days I had a friend, Rayne Adams, who used to say that my slant on life was that of a child of ten, chortling with excitement over a disaster…. But I, with my infantile cruelty, have never been able to view even the most impressive human behavior as anything but foolish.”

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

“… during a television interview in London, the question was put to me: ‘Miss Loos, your book was based on an economic situation, the unparalleled prosperity of the Twenties. If you were to write such a book today, what would be your theme?’ And without hesitation, I was forced to answer, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Gentlemen’ (a statement which brought the session abruptly to a close).”

Anita Loos

Alright, alright, I’ll stop quoting Loos (even though I could do it all day, she was endlessly quotable!) and get down to business. Going in, I thought that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be The Great Gatsby meets Bridget Jones’s Diary, but in reality it was more like Gatsby meets The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. It’s fun, and silly, but also insightful and powerful. Actually, charming is probably the best word for it. I couldn’t help but continue through reading But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes as well, so taken was I with Loos’ characters and prose.

The premise of the story is this: beautiful blonde Lorelei Lee decides to try her hand at writing a diary, because a gentleman friend suggested that her thoughts would make for an interesting book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is presented as a transcript of that journal, complete with spelling and grammatical errors that say much about Lorelei’s personality and position. She was working in the movies in Hollywood, she tells us, when she met Mr Gus Eisman, a button manufacturer from Chicago. He decided that her line of work in Hollywood was not “becoming” for a woman of her “potential”, so he installed her in a New York apartment and committed a small fortune to “educating” her. What follows from these opening pages, the entire book, is a knowing wink at every woman who has ever copped a barrage of mansplaining from their boss or their boyfriend or the bloke buying their drinks in a bar.



In the course of her “education”, Lorelei meets Gerry Lamson, a married novelist. He is so taken with her that he decides to divorce his wife, on the proviso (of course) that she’ll leave Eisman and run away with him. Lorelei is flattered, naturally, but wishes to avoid the scandal of involvement in divorce proceedings, and also worries that Eisman might cancel her European cruise ticket if she takes up with another man. Plus, Gerry’s kind of a bore.

Lorelei is also very concerned about her friend, Dorothy, who she believes to be “wasting her time” with a magazine writer named Mencken (a shout-out to Loos’ real-life friend and inspiration for the story). In Lorelei’s view, Dorothy should be lavishing her attentions more strategically, in the direction of the wealthy movie producer Mr Goldmark. So, to draw her friend away from fruitless pursuits, Lorelei brings Dorothy with her on the cruise, and they set sail for Europe together (with Eisman promising to meet them there).

To Lorelei’s dismay, she discovers that former District Attorney Bartlett is also on board, and she reveals to the reader how she came to know him. See, Lorelei once worked as a stenographer in her hometown for one Mr Jennings. Upon finding out that he was a sexual predator, she became “hysterical” and shot him. It sounds brutal, but her re-telling of these events is actually one of the funniest parts of this entire hilarious book. Bartlett is the attorney who prosecuted the case, with little success; apparently, the gentlemen of the jury were so “moved” by Lorelei’s “testimony” (wink-wink) that they acquitted her without question, and the judge – equally taken with her – gifted her the money she needed for a ticket to Hollywood.



Anyway, after some shenanigans on board (involving Bartlett and some military espionage), Lorelei and Dorothy eventually arrive in London. They encounter several impoverished aristocrats who are selling off their jewels to wealthy Americans. One particular £7,500 tiara catches Lorelei’s eye; what’s a poor girl to do but seek out a wealthy man to buy it for her? She settles on Sir Francis Beekman (whom she calls Piggie). He’s rich, but also married, and notoriously stingy. Using a heady combination of flattery and promises of discretion, Lorelei convinces him to buy the coveted tiara for her anyway.

With that taken care of, Dorothy and Lorelei head to Paris, but unbeknownst to them Lady Beekman is hot on their tails, hell-bent on confronting Lorelei about this tiara business. In thirty-five years of marriage, she says, her husband has never once bought her a gift, and she accuses Lorelei of having seduced him. Lady B tries to get her lawyers to steal the tiara back, but Lorelei manages to trick them with a fake one, and everyone goes home happy

When Eisman arrives in Paris, he quickly hustles the girls onto the Orient Express and takes them to Vienna. En route, Lorelei meets staunch Presbyterian moralist and prohibitionist Mr Henry Spoffard. He is (you guessed it) filthy rich, old money from Philadelphia. Eisman is quickly discarded. On one of their early dates, Spoffard takes Lorelei to see Dr Sigmund Freud, who says he cannot possibly analyse her because she has never repressed a desire in her entire life (accurate). Spoffard also later introduces Lorelei to his mother; she’s a tough old battle-axe, but Lorelei wins her over with champagne and charm. When Spoffard proposes, Lorelei accepts, albeit begrudgingly; she finds him rather repulsive, but he has money and prospects enough to make her happy.



When they get back to New York, Lorelei decides that she should “come out” into polite society, now that she’s marrying into the fold, so she plans a debutante ball for herself (honestly, I love this woman!). The party lasts three days, and makes the front pages of the newspapers. Lorelei has so much fun that she decides she might not marry Spoffard after all. She gets Dorothy to tell him that she is pathologically indulgent and extravagant (not that much of a stretch), while she goes on a mammoth shopping spree, charging everything to Spoffard’s accounts. When she stops for lunch, she meets a fascinating screen-writer, who convinces her that she should go ahead with the marriage so that her new husband will finance his film projects and she can star in them. It takes a bit of wrangling to unring the bell, but Lorelei – resourceful, clever Lorelei – manages to convince her fiance that it was all a misguided test of his love. He remorsefully agrees, not just to marry her, but also to finance the first film of her new friend. And so ends Lorelei’s diary, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

(And in the sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Lorelei gives up her film career after she has a child. She decides to become an “authoress”, after all the fun she had writing her diary, and her first project is to tell Dorothy’s life story.)

So, we arrive back at my “controversial” opinion, which I will repeat once more for the cheap seats in the back: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book than The Great Gatsby. They take place in a comparable setting, but Loos’ effort is just so. much. better! I think it’s too easily written off as a funny little story about a silly gold-digger, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a compelling and hilarious account of gender roles, politics, and power in 1920s America. It’s a story about resourcefulness, determination, strategy, and relationships. Compare that to stinkin’ Gatsby, which is pretty much just a cautionary tale about how rich people aren’t as happy as they look – pffft! What a tragedy that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes isn’t the book that teenagers are forced to read in high school; I’m sure it’d teach them a lot more about life, and heck, it’d be a lot more fun for them to read!

Yes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. I particularly encourage you to give it a go if you think that I must be wrong and Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. And, I’m sure I don’t need to say this to the booklovers, but just in case you need a reminder: don’t judge the book by its movie.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

  • “The air head who overrates her intellectual prowess is cute, but this book is a one trick pony. Lorelei simply sees life as “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” she wants to shop for hats, men are her sugar daddies. I’m sure this book was uproariously funny in the 1920’s.

I guess you had to be there.” – J. Rodeck
  • “It wasnt the play its the novel and im an so not satisfied” – Raven Lyons


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

Before we begin this review, let’s all take a minute to appreciate how Jonas Jonasson has the best name for a writer! Love that alliteration! And now that the formalities are out of the way, we can take a look at his worldwide best-seller, The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared. I bought this copy at a funky little second-hand bookshop in Ballina over a year ago but I hadn’t opened it until now, and I’m glad I waited. I needed something funny and light after The Call Of The Wild (with less puppy torture!), and it sure did the trick!

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared was first published in its native Swedish (Hundraåringen som Kiev ut genom fönstret och försvann, don’t ask me to say it) in 2009. It was the best-selling book in Sweden the following year, and by mid-way through 2012 it had sold over three million copies worldwide. This is the edition translated by Rod Bradbury, but it looks like there are a few different English versions floating around; in fact, it’s been translated into 35 languages, all told.

The story starts on 2 May 2005, with Allan Karlsson sitting in his retirement home, contemplating the impending celebration of his one-hundredth birthday. Frustrated by the prohibition policy of the home, he decides (bugger it!) he’ll jump out the window.

He walks in his slippers to the nearest bus station. There, he meets a hoodlum who’s bursting for the loo, but can’t squeeze himself into the cubicle with his giant suitcase in tow. The young man asks Allan to hold the case for a minute while he relieves himself, but the centenarian carpes the heck out of the diem! He jumps onto a bus, suitcase in tow, and leaves the hoodlum holding his dick and looking confused.



Turns out, that suitcase is stuffed full of drug money, and Allan ends up on the run from the dealers (who are desperate to recover their funds) as well as the police (who just want to return the befuddled old man to his home). Unbeknownst to his pursuers, Allan is sharp as a tack, and has a wealth of life experience in slipping through clutches to draw upon.

Every other chapter or so gives us a flashback to an increasingly fantastic episode from Allan’s long life. We learn that he unintentionally helped to make the atom bomb, became drinking buddies with Harry S Truman, saved the life of General Franco, had dinner with Stalin, got held in a concentration camp with Albert Einstein’s less-intelligent brother, foiled an assassination plot against Winston Churchill… yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little for The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, but if you can’t do that, how do you ever have any fun! (He never met Hitler, though – thank goodness! I’m so sick of that trope.)



Allan really likes vodka, which makes him instantly relatable for me, and the matter-of-fact way in which his story is told had me howling with laughter:

“Finer folks disapproved of [Allan’s father], dating back to the time he had stood on the square in Flen and advocated for the use of contraceptives. For this offense, he was fined ten crowns, and relieved of the need to worry about the topic any further since Allan’s mother out of pure shame decided to ban any further entry to her person.”

p. 26

Of course, because I am who I am as a person, I couldn’t help contemplating a more morbid reading of the story, where Allan’s incredible history is actually a delusion, the product of some form of age-related dementia. I seriously considered that it might be the “shock twist ending” for a minute, but (thankfully) there was nothing in the book itself about it at all, and nothing in the reviews I read online afterwards. So, it would seem I’m the only one who would have such a bummer of an idea. This is why I can’t have nice things…

The One-Hundred-Year Old man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is not only great fun, it’s also easy to pick up and put down as needed. That makes it great for holidays and other busy periods where your attention might be diverted. There’s a Swedish movie version (and another American adaptation planned soon, I think); I watched it hoping it would recreate the magic, but no such luck. The humour definitely works best on the page. The good news is that Jonasson has also written four subsequent novels, including a direct sequel for this gem: The Accidental Further Adventures Of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man.

Tl;dr? The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is a European Forrest Gump, but better! It’s a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve named it as one of the books guaranteed to make you literally LOL, and I’ll be reaching for it any time I need a light read with a lot of laughs.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared:

  • “It was alright but I wasn’t happy with all the murder and crime stuff it talked about.” – Jackie H
  • “If you have someone in your life dealing with a difficult geriatric, this might be salve To help with the pain.” – Robert K Anderson
  • “It was fun to read. The old man made every that I didn’t expect. Ha ha ha ha ha ha was all that I want to say” – Young
  • “This story was beyond silly and the writing infantile. I tried and tried again to get into it but finally after about 30 pages I tossed it in the trash. I could have better spent my time cleaning out the glove box in my car.” – mike lucas
  • “characters lacked character. Story was hard to connect to.” – PJ
  • “For anyone that thinks they are too old to accomplish anything. I so enjoyed this book, even the history of other countries.” – J Panther
  • “Bo-owing!” – Ann Olsen


The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I’ve been looking forward to The Bell Jar for a long, long time. Unfortunately, it’s another book that’s practically impossible to find in secondhand bookstores. No one – and I mean no one – seems to want to part with their copy! I checked in every secondhand store, market stall, and charity shop I passed for over a year, with no luck… and then (get this), one day, a dear friend was searching manically for a last-minute gift for me, and she managed to find a copy in the secondhand book store closest to my house. It had come in that very day. She got this gorgeous Faber edition for a song, and it is honestly one of the best presents I have ever received. Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes?

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published just weeks before her suicide – and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the tone of the book. I know trigger warnings are controversial, but surely we can all agree that if there’s any book in the world that deserves one, it’s The Bell Jar? It’s such a stark depiction of depression and suicidality, it could really bring up some stuff for you if you’re not prepared. Readers also widely regard it as a roman à clef, because the main character’s descent into mental illness so closely mirrors Plath’s own struggles. She pretty much just changed the names of people and places (not unlike Jack Kerouac’s On The Road… well, in that regard only).

The story is set in 1953. It opens with a young woman – Esther Greenwood – completing a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City, exactly as Plath did (I’m not going to point out every similarity though, because that would get very old very quickly – just trust me that Esther = Sylvia, kay?). Esther had high hopes for the internship, but it’s been nothing like what she expected, and she’s more perplexed than enamoured with the glamourous big-city lifestyle. She returns home, in low spirits, and her mother piles on, telling her that she was rejected by the prestigious writing program she’d set her sights on entering.

So, Esther can’t figure out what the fuck to do with herself. She tries to read Finnegan’s Wake, but gives up on that quick smart. She thinks about marriage and motherhood, but decides she’d rather throw up in her mouth and swallow it. She looks into all of the socially-acceptable “woman jobs” available to her (like stenography), but they bore the pants off her. Given her options, it’s hardly a surprise that she winds up extremely depressed.



Her mother takes her to see a psychiatrist, who apparently got his education from one half-hearted read of One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest. He gives her a horrific round of ECT, and she (quite rightly) refuses to return. His “treatment” makes everything worse instead of better, culminating in a suicide attempt. Esther survives… barely.

Her mother has her committed, and she finally receives some actual therapy from a non-idiot, including properly-administered ECT, after which her condition greatly improves. She takes many steps towards rebuilding her life and her mental health, and she says she feels as though the “bell jar” of her depression has been lifted (thus, the title). The book ends with her talking about her fear that the bell jar would again descend one day – it’s kind of ambiguous, but also beautiful.

I had such high expectations of The Bell Jar, after years of hearing how fantastic it was, and I was convinced there was no way it could possibly live up to the hype… but, of course, it fucking did. The prose was so damn beautiful, I was almost angry. I started wondering why I should bother writing or reading anything else in the world, when something this good already exists. I wanted to throw my gorgeous Faber edition across the room… but, of course, I couldn’t, because I was clutching it so hard.

The Bell Jar touches on many major themes and issues, but not in a way that feels Loftily Literary(TM) – it all just emerges naturally from the story. Take, for instance, the questions Plath raises about the role of women in society, and the constraints of gender roles for women in mid-20th century America. Esther feels the usual pressure to be a “good girl” and become both self-sufficient and married with children, but she lacks the resources and opportunities to become truly independent. Then, on top of that, Plath has a lot to say about mental health treatment – especially for women – in that era, showing us the good, the bad, and the ugly of how it could all unfold.



Unfortunately, Plath’s real-life story has a much more tragic end; she died by suicide barely a month after publication of The Bell Jar in the U.K. It wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1971, as per the wishes of her husband and mother. I think her death is all the more tragic for how it’s impacted our reading of her work. We’re so obsessed by the autobiographical nature of it, especially in light of her death, that we seem to overlook the artistic triumph of this (ultimately fictional) book. We miss the proverbial wood for the trees, or whatever.

I read one review that said Plath’s suicide so soon after publication meant that there have been “few innocent readings” of The Bell Jar, which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it. It’s practically impossible to read this book without, on some level, searching for insights into Plath’s real life and death. Still, for the sake of art, we should really try.

Even though The Bell Jar was her only novel, there’s still plenty more Plath in my future; she’s widely credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry, more than any of her contemporaries, so I’ll be seeking out her collections, not to mention her diaries and letters. Her work is hardly a barrel of laughs, but if you’re in a mentally stable place and equipped to cope with what it brings up for you, it is so, so worth it. I one-hundred-percent recommend The Bell Jar, one of the few books I’ve ever read that truly exceeds the hype.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bell Jar:

  • “Every girl should love this by age 15 and be embarrassed that they did by age 35.” – Jonathan AW Edwards
  • “What light-hearted fun this was! A comedy romp from beginning to end. Highly recommended if you need cheering up.” – Katie Krackers
  • “There was sticky brown stuff all over the book including on the inside.” – Lilian
  • “Does what it says on the tin.” – Carl Sanders
  • “Noice” – Jacob Bradley
  • “Overly sensitive privileged white girl rejects a guy, doesn’t get into the writing course she wants. Tries to read James Joyce, thinks about death, tries to kill herself. Has a bunch of shock treatment.
    Maybe you have to be young and angsty to appreciate it.
    I am not young, and successfully medicated. Even it my most angsty, this would have been a drag.
    Bonus points for language usage.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It was a good 47 minutes” – Amazon Customer


Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Listen up, folks, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: If you’re going to read Little Women for the very first time, you need to find an edition – like this one, from Penguin Classics – with a decent introduction to the text. I know not everyone reads the introduction first, but I do, and if I hadn’t in this case, I would have completely missed the point. I was already pretty familiar with the story, because I loved the Winona Ryder film adaptation as a kid, but as far as literary critique goes I would have been completely adrift without a better understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s background and her motivations behind writing Little Women. (Of course, if an edition with a decent introduction isn’t forthcoming, you could always just read this review before you get started…)

Little Women was first published in 1868, and has historically been dismissed as moralising, sentimental guff. It’s “for girls”, you know? It’s only recently that Alcott’s magnum opus has been considered a valued component of the American literary canon. To fully appreciate the genius of this book, you really need to understand Alcott’s politics and the context in which the book was published. And, in addition to finding a copy with an introduction that breaks it down for you, I would strongly recommend finding a copy of the original text; there was a later edition, published in 1880, that smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges and, in so doing, refined a lot of the language and character descriptions to make them seem more “genteel”. Virtually all readers nowadays pick up the 1880 edition without realising what they’re missing out on – don’t be one of them!

So, onto all this background knowledge I keep telling you that you need: Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a “moral” book for young girls, with “wide appeal”. The story she came up with follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they transition into womanhood. Alcott herself was the second of four daughters, and – believe it or not – the similarities between her and Jo March don’t end there, so it’s pretty clear where she drew her inspiration. In fact, the story was so autobiographical that fans would write letters addressed to “Miss March”, and Alcott – being the good sport she was – would respond without correcting them. The first book was such a huge commercial success that readers (and Alcott’s publishers) immediately began clamouring for a sequel, so Alcott pumped out the follow-up “Good Wives” (though, it must be said, she was not a fan of that title, it was chosen by the publishers and she had no say at all). The two volumes are now sold together as a single edition, bearing the name Little Women.

Now, even though she seems like a good little woman herself, giving the publishers exactly what they wanted, Alcott is on record as having said that she would have much preferred to keep working on her own collection of short stories, which was very different in nature to the book for which she is most famous. So, why didn’t she? Well… she was hard up for cash. She wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” she said, but she hated writing it and referred to the process as “plodding away”.



She sought to address three major themes – domesticity, work, and true love – through this story of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott also effectively created the archetype of the “all-American girl”, embodying its different aspects in each of the March sisters: there’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic. The publishers wanted a story about good girls being good, but Alcott’s true message underlying the story is a little different: she’s clearly saying that virtue should be valued over wealth, and that women can overcome the constraints upon their gender through hard work and piety.

Yep, that’s right: Alcott was a feminist, and Little Women – despite its prima facie old-school values, and its controversial ending – is a deeply feminist novel. At the time of its publication, there were almost no models of non-traditional womanhood in popular media for young girls. So, Alcott took it upon herself to pitch many ideas of social change and progressive politics against the familiar backdrop of domestic life. Little Women paints a very familiar picture of the lives of girls in 19th century America, but it also legitimises their aspirations to grow beyond what is “expected” of them. So, three cheers for Alcott – way the fuck ahead of her time!

She gave the March sisters adventurous plots and storylines that had traditionally been coded as male. She wanted to normalise the ambition of women, and showcase alternatives to existing gender roles (which, at the time, were more restrictive than a damn corset). In particular, she addressed the idea that spinsters were “fringe” members of society, without power or influence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spinsters and unmarried women are actually strong, multi-dimensional characters, the true power brokers of the New England world that she created. Alcott shat all over the idea that you needed a husband and a family to be a “good” woman, and she did so from a great fucking height.



Now, everyone who’s read the book is currently screaming at me: “But Alcott ‘saved’ Jo in the end by marrying her off! That’s not feminist!”. To that, I say that the way in which Alcott did it was so clever and subversive, I don’t blame you for missing it on the first take. Alcott did, indeed, “marry off” her heroine… but not to the dashing, Prince Charming (Laurie), who had begged for her hand time and time again. Nope! Jo instead marries the much older (and poorer!) Professor Friederich Bhaer, a far less romantic ending and one that subverted the expectations of all the young readers who had, until then, never read a love story that didn’t involve a fairytale ending. Fuck yes, Alcott – fuck yes! People who criticise this ending don’t seem to understand the precarious position in which the author found herself. She was straddling the demands of her moneybags publishers – not to mention her very pious and conservative father – as well as her own determination to write a story that upheld her own feminist values. You can’t put a 20th century feminist head on a 19th century working woman’s shoulders, and I say she did a damn good job with what she had.

“For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord”, kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others, Little Women itself stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom.”

The book is full of sneaky little feminist asides. Of course, there are plenty of characters that represent the social status-quo, in keeping with the morals of the time, but the fact that Alcott managed to include her own agenda at all feels rebellious and awesome. In real life, Alcott was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement (yay!), and also the temperance movement (boo!), so she practiced what she preached, no matter what her Daddy said. If you need any more proof that she was fighting the good fight, the wonderful introduction to my Penguin Classics edition cites her influence on some of the founding mothers of feminism as we know it today: Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.



So, all told, I’m really glad I read the introduction and learned all of this before I started reading the book – otherwise, I could well have fallen into the trap of disregarding Little Women as fluff. As it was, I knew exactly what to look for in the story, and I found it really interesting and enjoyable. Little Women is basically the original YA novel – sure, it can be a bit saccharine and trite at times, but no more so than any other work published around the same time, and when you look closely there are some really valuable lessons hidden away there.

That said, even though I’m calling this a recommended read(!), I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers. It’s much better suited to older readers, who have more developed critical thinking skills and can truly appreciate the masterful way that this simple story, about a very loving tight-knit group of sisters, makes some very important points about the role of women in society… points that we could do well to re-visit often.

Tl;dr? Make sure you look beneath the surface of Little Women, because that’s where you’ll find Alcott’s fighting feminist spirit. Onwards, ladies!

Note: in the end, I enjoyed Little Women so much that I put it on my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

  • “PLEASE NOTE THAT I DID NOT ORDER THIS ITEM” – SUE
  • “I would have given it five stars if the last few chapters hadn’t been some what disappointing. The majority of the book brought me immense pleasure and pain. Enjoy. It is worthwhile. Especially if you love Jesus.” – Blodwyn
  • “It was dumb. The women acted like 5 year olds more than half of the time and the mother who stressed the importance of resources, decided to give away food. Genius.” – Matthew
  • “If you are looking for a 400+ page children’s book narrated bu an unenthusiastic female robot… LOOK NO FURTHER… YOU HAVE FOUND IT!!!!” – Amazon Customer


Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There’s nothing better than reading winners back-to-back! Last week, I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and this week I had the pleasure of getting swept away by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I didn’t have high hopes: I mean, Russian literature is supposed to be super long and heavy and hard to read… plus, my copy was, well, a little worse for wear (another “pre-loved” edition lifted from my husband’s collection).

The introduction didn’t help matters, either. It was a little hard to follow, not having read Crime and Punishment (or, indeed, any of Dostoyevsky’s other works) before. Some parts were pretty salient, though:

“Few works of fiction have attracted so many widely diverging interpretations as Crime and Punishment. It has been seen as a detective novel, an attack on radical youth, a study in ‘alienation’ and criminal psychopathology, a work of prophecy (the attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II by the nihilist student Dmitry Karakozov took place while the book was at the printer’s, and some even saw the Tsar’s murder in 1881 as a fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s warning), an indictment of urban social conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, a religious epic and a proto-Nietzchean analysis of the ‘will to power’. It is, of course, all of these things – but it is more.”

Introduction (Crime And Punishment)

The fact is Crime and Punishment has been super-popular ever since the first installments were published in The Russian Messenger in 1866. No one seems to doubt its significance – but academics argue themselves hoarse about what Dostoyevsky was actually getting at. It’s a reasonable basis for my concerns, but I shouldn’t have been worried – I was hooked from the very first page. It just goes to show, not only should you not judge a book by its cover (especially when that cover is falling apart), but you also shouldn’t pay much mind to its reputation. The book you worry is going to be really dense and boring to read actually turns out to be… well, fan-fucking-tastic!

Let’s start with the premise, because it is wild: Crime and Punishment follows the story of ex-student Rodin Raskolnikov, living on a shoestring in St Petersburg. He formulates a plan to stop his sister marrying a rich man (whom she does not love) in order to support the family – he sees that as a kind of prostitution, so how to prevent such a crime? Well, kill a crotchety old pawn-broker and steal her cash, obviously!


Yes, it’s a super-flawed plan, and that makes for fantastic reading. Dostoyevsky employed a really revolutionary narrative technique (for the time), writing from a third-person perspective but focusing almost exclusively on the internal monologue of the protagonist. Raskolnikov is a bundle of nerves and anxiety, which makes him – and I know I shouldn’t say this, given that he is a literal axe murderer, but I don’t care – totally relatable! Crime and Punishment follows his moral dilemmas leading up to the murder(s), and his complete psychological denouement afterwards. It’s compelling stuff! Most of it is told through Raskolnikov talking to himself, but it still seems fast-paced and action-packed. That takes real talent, eh?

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over other organisms.”

p. 242

Apparently, Dostoyevsky wrote his original drafts with a focus on “the present question of drunkness… all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances”, and the original title was The Drunkards (well, he is Russian). But as he started to develop the character of Raskolnikov, and fleshed out the nature of his crime, the story took a turn. Dostoyevsky’s masterful narrative technique only emerged in the final draft, where he switched to third-person narration, and basically re-wrote the whole thing. I can only imagine what a slow and laborious process that must have been in the days before word processors… but all his hard work damn sure paid off.

Crime and Punishment is written in six parts, and it’s around Part Three that Dostoyevsky starts getting philosophical, sharing with us (through his characters) his thoughts on… well, crime and punishment, funnily enough. He picks apart all of the disastrous consequences of Raskolnikov’s “moral” murder. You could spend a lifetime analysing the philosophical questions raised by Crime and Punishment, but I think I’ll leave that up to the professors – KUWTP is hardly the place to dissect Dostoyevsky’s position on nihilism 😉


Even without the philosophical analysis, it’s impossible to write a simple plot summary that is both succinct and complete, because the novel is so deeply complex. But don’t let that fool you! That does not make it heavy, boring, or hard-to-follow (I’m now kicking myself for letting all those pre-conceived ideas put me off reading it for so long). The only valid forewarning I feel I need to give you is that this book is really 600 pages of “crime”, and only an epilogue or so of “punishment”. Whatever the title might have you believe, Dostoyevsky didn’t so much write about formal punishment of crime (in terms of the justice system and so forth), but rather the internal “punishment” stemming from Raskolnikov’s own conscience.

But enough heavy stuff! What I really want to impress upon you is how much fun this book is! It’s not at all what you’d expect.

“The companion who was the object of these reproaches was sitting on a chair and had the look of a man who badly wanted to sneeze, but could not for the life of him do so.”

p. 601

Crime and Punishment is officially a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. If you’re looking to delve deeper into Russian literature as some kind of project, you might want to start with Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (as Dostoyevsky said himself, “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat”), but if you’re simply curious and not put off by its bad reputation, pick it up today! As beat-up as this copy looks, I strongly recommend trying to get your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations but I can’t vouch for any of those, because the art of translation can make or break your enjoyment of a book. On top of that, the footnotes in this edition are great – helpful without going over the top. All in all, I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go – and I’m sure you will be too!

Note: I’m so confident that you’ll love Crime And Punishment that I included it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crime and Punishment:

  • “If this book doesn’t drive you to drink nothing will. I haven’t encountered this many melodramatic people in my entire life. Really, truly, one after another is dropping dead of guilt or shooting himself or going insane, or hating and loathing his friends and family and sweethearts, or,
    When all is copacetic, just drinking himself stupid. Let me do you a favour and save you a few hours: Man kills 2 women and then proceeds to feel guilty for 600 pages. If I could have killed him myself I would have!” – Geezer & Wife
  • “Can’t eat a classic” – Keith B Cruise
  • “This book was P to the double O P don’t waste your hard earned money on this piece of total and complete crap.” – Cecily
  • “This book manifest a many-eyed demon in your soul, who will proceed to tear the blindfold off your inner child’s face, exposing him to the blinding light of truth as he falls headlong into the abyss while madly clawing at the smoking pits that were one his pure, innocent eyes.” – Amazon Customer
  • I was determined to finish it because it is a classic. My question for the author would be “Were you determined to bore us to tears by constantly using 500 words when 100 would have sufficed?” Get thee to a gulag!” – Amazon Customer


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