Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 1 of 2)

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.

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 particular book 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 volume 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 lovestruck 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 had been 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 a divorce proceeding, 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), when she could be lavishing her attentions more strategically in the direction of the wealthy movie producer Mr Goldmark. So, to draw her friend away from such 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 (and why she’s so distraught at his presence). 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 (duh) and notoriously stingy. Still, using a heady combination of flattery and promises of discretion, Lorelei convinces him to buy the coveted tiara for her.

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, and he remorsefully agrees not just to marry her, but 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!

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!

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

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante


Confession: I’ve been a bit apprehensive about posting this review, simply because I’m not sure that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend justice. It is, quite frankly, one of the best books that I have ever read. It starts right inside the front cover: three straight pages of adoring reviews, from the stock-standard “one of the greatest novelists of our time” from the New York Times, to the highly apt “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” from The Australian, to the best (and most creative) “Ferrante writes with the kind of power saved for weather systems with female names, sparing no one” from the LA Times. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were over-stating things just a smidge… but they weren’t. Ferrante’s writing is just that damn good.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series of novels (published 2012-2015). It follows the lives of Elena Greco (the narrator) and Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, as they pull themselves up from their humble origins in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. This version is translated from the original Italian by translator Ann Goldstein – and damn, she did one hell of a job! She somehow retained the rolling lyricism of the original Italian, with no awkward or stilted language – not a single hint to the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The translation is truly a work of art, in and of itself.

I had very determinedly not read anything about My Brilliant Friend or Elena Ferrante prior to opening the book (as is my custom: I like coming to new books with a clean slate)… but it was hard! Elena Ferrante is the darling of the literary world, and I have an unhealthy level of curiosity about her. Her name is a pseudonym, and the true identity of the author has been withheld to this day – which is incredible given that we live in the digital age, and Time named her one of the most influential people of 2016! We know that she was born in Naples in 1943, she has a classics degree, she is a mother, and (we infer) she is no longer married. Speculation as to her true identity is, of course, absolutely rife, but Ferrante herself has repeatedly argued that anonymity is a precondition for her work. She says: “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Academics and literary critics have reached various conclusions as to who the “real” Elena Ferrante is, but I’ll leave it up to them – doesn’t all the guesswork spoil the fun?

Anyway, to the book: once you make it through pages and pages of praise and acclaim, My Brilliant Friend kicks off with an Index of Characters, which I thought was really interesting. It evoked the Genealogical Table in the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights, and – much like Brontë’s classic – the guide really came in handy, because the Italian names all look remarkably similar at times, and almost every character has multiple nicknames. Yikes! The prologue sets up the series’ premise: a woman (Elena) receives a phone call from the son of a friend (Lila), saying that his mother has gone missing. Elena suspects that the “disappearance” is deliberate, and she takes it upon herself to record the details of Lila’s life, a passive-aggressive attempt to stop her vanishing into thin air. Basically, it’s a fictionalised biography, written out of sheer stubbornness. From that moment, Ferrante had me hooked!

(Boilerplate spoiler warning, as much as I hate them: I figure My Brilliant Friend is good enough, and recent enough, to warrant at least a perfunctory heads-up.)

Elena begins the story with their shared childhood, in 1950s Naples. She and Lila grew up in poverty, surrounded by domestic violence, class struggles, community politics, and very little in the way of parental supervision. Neither set of parents expects the girls to receive much of an education, despite the fact that they both show remarkable academic talent. Their lives diverge when Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue with school, while their teacher convinces Elena’s parents to cover the costs of further education.

Ferrante’s writing is so beautiful, and chock-full of insight! She gives one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of a panic attack that I have ever read, describing it as “dissolving margins”. There have been rumours (of course!) that Ferrante may, in fact, be a male writer, but from reading My Brilliant Friend I find that hard to believe. Ferrante writes about developing breasts (and the male curiosity about them) in a way that could have been lifted from my very own pubescent head. The only male writer I’ve come across that has ever come close to reaching that level of insight into the female mind was William Faulkner, in a single chapter of As I Lay Dying. So, no, I don’t believe Ferrante is a man. And I could natter on about her literary mastery forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself…

Back to the story: while Elena continues with school, Lila works in her father’s cobbler business, and develops new dreams and schemes of designing her own line of shoes, with a view to making enough money to lift the family out of poverty. Lila grows disarmingly beautiful (of course), attracting the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood. A young man from a powerful local family takes it into his head that he wants to marry her, and her family puts the pressure on (after all, he’s rich enough to own a car, and he bribes them by buying them a television of their very own)… but Lilia – headstrong, determined, contrary Lila – digs in her heels. She convinces the local grocer, Stefano, to propose instead, and he gets the family onside by offering to finance Lila’s shoe project.

Now, you might think from this (very brief, I’ll admit) description that Lila is the “brilliant friend”. She is, indeed, incredibly smart – as well as beautiful, cruel, opportunistic, and ambitious, with just a hint of a soft underbelly. Ferrante flips this notion on its head, though, when Lila reveals in the moments before her wedding that she considers Elena to be her “brilliant friend”. It’s a really touching scene between them, and I was gripping the book hard and blinking a lot as I read…

Lila’s marriage doesn’t get off to a flying start, exactly. Her new husband, Stefano, betrays her trust completely, by inviting her former suitor (the young, rich, powerful guy with the car and the television and the bad attitude) to the wedding, and Lila discovers that her new hubby actually sold him the prototype of her shoe line – the shoes that Stefano told her he would treasure forever and never let go. As far as she’s concerned, he can get in the bin…

and that’s where it ends!


It is, honestly, the cruelest ending I have ever read. I mean, it’s fantastic (!), and this is exactly how a series should be done, but Jesus wept… it’s not a cliche cliffhanger, nor is everything wrapped up neatly in a bow. The story just stops! Ferrante has said that she considers the Neapolitan series to be a single book, split into four volumes primarily for reasons of length, which makes sense of the ending somewhat. But still! I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t have a copy of the next book (The Story Of A New Name) ready to pick up, and I’ve got dozens of books to go on The List before I can add any new ones! Gah!

I want to emphasise that this Keeping Up With The Penguins summary skips over a lot, because My Brilliant Friend is incredibly complex and detailed. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… heck, just listing all of the themes, with a brief description of how Ferrante handles them, would make for a prohibitively long review.

Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. In fact, I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. That goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking For Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty (or seventy, or a hundred) years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we consider Austen and the Brontës. Get in early, and read it now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:

  • “Spoiler Alert: Nothing of interest ever happens.” – Laurien in Oregon
  • “Nice. But more relevant for women…” – Amazon Customer
  • “And this is book1 out of 4! I frankly don’t think the characters are so interesting that they need to be captured in eighty squillion words. Having had said this, the author is brilliant at capturing voices and the vibe.” – D O WilshynskyDresler
  • “I don’t think I”ll finish. Boring me to death. I’m about 30% through and it’s like listening to a grandma ramble about her hardscrabble childhood. Very repetitive and not my grandma, so I don’t care.” – calamityj
  • “I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??….” – Jessica B.

 

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee


Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. As if that weren’t enough, she refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations! She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be treated kindly by the handful of reviewers she thought might look it over. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood. Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I haven’t felt this much adoration for a wise old owl character since Dumbledore. I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!

Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.


So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds). Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!

Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press. Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle


I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews with great authors, and you’d be surprised how many of them say they read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as children. So, this week, I figured, if it’s good enough for them…

In the late 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle was a young doctor, struggling to make ends meet in his Southsea practice. He turned to writing short stories and articles as a way to supplement his income. I literally laughed out loud when I read that in his author bio – he must be the only doctor in the history of the world that upped his hustle with writing as a side gig! The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories, was published serially in The Strand Magazine between July 1891 and June 1892. The stories were so well received that The Strand saw a considerable boost in subscription numbers, and Doyle grabbed the bull by the horns and demanded more money (because none of his other books or stories were making enough to keep him afloat).

The character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by one of Doyle’s lecturers at Edinburgh University – a bloke called Joseph Bell, who had an eerie talent for spotting details. Still, Doyle owes a true artistic debt to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe was the one who actually invented the classic detective story formula (the prototype being his beloved character C. Auguste Dupin): a super-smart detective with a knack for deduction and leaps of logic, a less-smart (but perhaps more personable) sidekick who narrates the action, and bumbling local officials who never quite get it right. Poe invented all of that, and yet it’s Doyle’s Sherlock that has become synonymous with the fictional detective archetype. Life really isn’t fair…

To make matters worse, Doyle wasn’t actually all that interested in writing his most famous character. His true passion lay with historical fashion, and he lamented that Sherlock Holmes took him away from better things. He idn’t mind the money that came with publishing commercial fiction, of course, and he ultimately published more than sixty Holmes novels and stories to keep that rolling in… but he was really bitter about the fact that there was no demand for any of his other works. He tried to kill Holmes off in 1893 (a short story called “The Final Problem”), but the public outrage was so great that Doyle was forced to bring him back to life with additional stories from earlier in the timeline. To this day, Doyle’s “serious” writing languishes largely unread, while Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most recognisable fictional characters in the world.

Like Frankenstein, or Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters that defined a genre. Even if you’ve never read an Arthur Conan Doyle story in your life, you probably still know who Sherlock is (and you might have even used the phrase “no shit, Sherlock” a time or two). His influence is so widespread that the character of Sherlock Holmes has been played by no fewer than 70 different actors, across 200 film adaptations – and there are hundreds of TV series, stage productions, audio recordings, and other adaptations beyond that. Some of them also bear the title The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but they don’t necessarily follow any of the stories from this collection.

Yes, back to the collection: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes consists of twelve short stories. They’re quick, easy, fun to read, and – most of all – bloody clever! They’re narrated by Dr Watson, recounting the cases taken on by Sherlock Holmes – everything from a mysterious newspaper advertisement (“The Red-Headed League”) to the Ku Klux Klan (“The Five Orange Pips”).

Despite being detective fiction, it’s not all doom and gloom! Most of the cases are actually quite whimsical and fun. Plus, I think that Sherlock has been misrepresented in a lot of modern-day adaptations – in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he certainly didn’t seem as mean or as brisk as I was expecting. On the whole, this collection is much closer to Scooby Doo than it is to Criminal Minds.


Doyle’s economy of language is dead-set fucking legendary, and I loved how Holmes cut across class divides (which, we must remember, were particularly prominent in Victorian England, where the stories are set). Everyone, from poor street beggars and opium users through to noblemen and royalty, comes to Holmes, hat in hand, asking for help. He’s all about justice in an unjust world, and he has little regard for aristocracy and power. Indeed, he takes particular glee in mocking the power structures of the day, and unveiling the incompetence and prejudice of the authorities. Fuck yeah, Sherlock! Fight the power!

Doyle once said that “The Adventures of the Speckled Band” from this collection was his favourite Sherlock Holmes story. I, personally, couldn’t narrow it down to just one – I loved “A Scandal in Bohemia” (featuring the enigmatic Irene Adler), “The Red-Headed League”, and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”. Ultimately, though, they’re all highly readable, endlessly entertaining, and definitely leave you wanting more. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a highly Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

  • “Good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good awesome cool swag fun to read” – S. Rolman
  • “very heavy book. The case is made of heavy cardboard and the set looks very expensive.” – Debbie Perdue
  • “Great book for unexpected twists, unless you are a detective.” – Tom Bentley
  • “The author terribly misrepresents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed the Mormon Church).” – DLemon
  • “I ordered this to read on my Kindle but decided that I do not like to read on the Kindle.” – Mary Clark

 

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë


There was no possibility of picking up another treatise on how tough it is to be a white man that day… (without driving myself completely bonkers). That’s how I came to read Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece was originally published in 1847 under the title Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and “edited” under the pen name Currer Bell. All of the Brontë sisters took on gender-ambiguous nom de plumes, assuming (quite rightly, it turned out) that literature written by women wouldn’t get a fair shake. Charlotte was once told by Robert Southey that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be”. Firstly, fuck that guy. Secondly, I’m glad Charlotte didn’t listen to him, because her shit is brilliant.

Charlotte was, as you’ve probably guessed, the older sister to Emily Brontë (I reviewed Wuthering Heights a little while back). Emily gets all of the love and accolades, but it was Charlotte that truly revolutionised the art of first-person fiction (i.e., she was the first to really write about what was going on in people’s heads). She has been called “the first historian of private consciousness”, and her influence can be seen in the work of dudes like Proust and Joyce. She internalised the action the way that no one before her could, and was one of the first to explore classism, sexuality, religion, and feminism in the way we do today. So, when it comes to the Brontë sibling rivalry, I’m going in to bat for Charlotte.

By the way, if I sound at all like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because the introduction to this edition is off the chain. It’s insightful, helpful, and intelligent – without going over your head. Plus, I just fucking loved Jane Eyre. I absorbed the book like a brand-new sponge baptised in bathwater.


Right from the outset, Jane Eyre is pretty gripping. Jane – the main character, duh – is ten years old, her parents are dead, and she has been sent to live with her nice, rich uncle… but he dies too, so she’s raised by her evil stepmother, alongside her three bratty cousins. Life’s pretty terrible for Jane, but it is beautifully written. I tend to feel pretty disconnected from literature of this period (as most would-be bookworms do); I don’t understand the language, the imagery, the style, and the metaphor. All of it seems anchored in a context that I don’t know enough about to fully comprehend… but not so with Jane! I was immediately immersed in her world. She feels everything so keenly, and passion drips from every word – I mean, she’s a very intense girl, but Charlotte Brontë is artful enough to keep it from sliding into melodramatics. It’s everything that My Brilliant Career should have been.

Jane winds up in a boarding school, and the drama doesn’t stop: she’s pretty mercilessly bullied for a while, the girls are all kinds of weird, and her first best friend Helen Burns dies of tuberculosis. This is where we first see Brontë really draw from her own life (I should do a shot every time an author in this project “writes what they know”). Helen’s death eerily mirrors the deaths of Brontë’s own younger sisters: Elizabeth and Maria Brontë both died of tuberculosis in childhood, as a result of the conditions at their school. So this whole section of the plot is basically Charlotte saying a big ol’ “fuck you” to so-called charitable institutions.

When Jane is done with school, she is transferred to the Thornfield mansion, and introduced to her new master Mr Rochester. Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand: I didn’t really like Rochester much, mostly because he constantly talks over and down to Jane, and he’s basically just a pompous, self-absorbed fuckboy of the highest order… but I found the initial flirtations between he and Jane very romantic. I really wanted to be a keener, more critical feminist, but this shit had me all aflutter. I’m pretty confident that every strong, independent woman who has had the misfortune of falling in love with a man can relate.

The saving grace is that Jane Eyre is a blatant proto-feminist call to arms. Brontë doesn’t even try to hide it in layers of metaphor, like so many other writers of the time. She literally tells us, through Jane, that she thinks women are equal to men and it is absolute bullshit that they aren’t treated as such. She was so woke for her time that it confused the hell out of critics. One Ms Elizabeth Rigby wrote, in her “scathing” review, that “no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert dishes with the same hands, or talks of doing so in the same breath” and as such Jane Eyre must have been written by a man… or, at least, by a woman “so depraved as to have long forfeited the society of her own sex”. Fuck yes, Charlotte Brontë, fuck yes! Troll reviews like that are how you know you’re on the right track.

It’s true that – panty-dropping for Rochester aside – Jane is a bad bitch. She fawns over him privately, sure, but in his company she makes every show of having no time for his bullshit. On the eve of their engagement, she says:

“Here I heard myself apostrophized as a ‘hard little thing’; and it was added ‘any other woman would have been melted to marrow hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise.’

I assured him that I was naturally hard – very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers[e] rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks [engagement] elapsed: he should know fully what sort of bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.”

… and she proceeds to torture him mercilessly every damn day. Jane Eyre was the Beyonce’s Lemonade of its time.

If you’re tempted to roll your eyes right now, stop and think about it: this was a really scathing commentary on class and gender roles back in the day. Of course it wasn’t perfect – Jane doesn’t exactly call Rochester out on his treatment of his “savage Creole” wife that he hid in the attic, and there’s a few moments of superiority and white-saviourism – but it’s hardly fair to put a 21st century head on Charlotte Brontë’s shoulders. As it stands, in her own context, she was a true radical.

And lest this talk of radical feminism scare you off, you should know that Jane Eyre is still fucking hilarious. You wouldn’t call it a “comedy” per se, but I literally laughed out loud countless times. Jane is so witty and dry and clever – maybe a touch too earnest and self-deprecating at times, but it’s endearing. Shit like this had me in hysterics:

“‘No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,’ he began, ‘especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?’

‘They go to hell,’ was my ready and orthodox answer.

‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pit full of fire.’

‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.'”

Jane Eyre is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints experienced by a clever, funny woman over the course of a decade in the 19th century. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it. Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and highly recommended by Keeping Up With The Penguins (and, as we all know, there is no higher praise than that!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

  • “This version is “illustrated” with reproductions of paintings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the text. For example, in the middle of a description of Sundays at the Lowood school, when the girls had to walk two miles to church services in the snow, there is a picture of a Native American spearing a buffalo.” – J. W. Shields
  • “I could have read Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, or O’Connor. I could have read Don Quixote a second time or sailed again with Captain Ahab on his philosophical quest. Instead, I wasted a few weeks reading this glorified soap opera with what is perhaps one of the most unintentional comic endings in all of literature. Onward, Sancho, onward!” – Nemo
  • “Gee, this is a classic. But I was shocked by the unremitting sadism in it and soon stopped reading it.” – U. S. ‘nAye
  • “The floral print came off and not noticing this, it transferred to my leg while wearing shorts. Other than that the book is great…” – Nancy Host
  • “I read this against my will.” – Erik

 

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