Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Romance

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

OK folks, let’s be real here: before you read this review, you should know that I’m not going to shake the Earth with it. It turns out, Wuthering Heights has been reviewed and critiqued approximately eighty billion times already. My copy (purchased for $10, once owned by but never borrowed from the library of Riverside Girls’ High, according to the stamp in the front) has a Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Further Reading List (pages!), a Note on the Text, a Genealogical Table, a Bibliographical Notice for the author, and an Editors Preface to the New [1850] Edition… not to mention that the text itself is followed by 13 pages of notes. How can I possibly add to an analysis that’s already longer than the book? I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not optimistic… 😉

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(A hot tip for those of you yet to read Wuthering Heights: given how many characters Emily Brontë names for their parents, and how many of them marry their cousins, an edition with the aforementioned Genealogical Table in the front is really handy!)

So, it’s 1801, right. This moody guy, Heathcliff, lives with his daughter-in-law and her new husband (his own son having perished, at some point). The DIL is hot, but they’re all kind of rude and weird. Their kindly neighbour – who’s trying to narrate this mess – comes to have a sleepover, but they stick him in a really strange room and he has nutty dreams and sees a ghost. He bails quick smart. Then, presto, we kind of switch narrators, because that kindly neighbour – safe, back at his place – gets bored at dinner and makes his housemaid give him all the dirt on those whack-jobs up the road. So, it’s the narrator narrating the narration of his housemaid. Got it?

It turns out: that Heathcliff guy was once a ruffian street-kid, with a Cinderella-esque upbringing (once the dude who took him in died, the rest of the family started being really mean). Catherine (we’ll call her Cathy Senior for clarity – you’ll see why in a minute) was a saucy little minx, who flirtatiously tortured Heathcliff for years, but she ultimately decided to marry the snooty guy next door instead. It was a hella dramatic household – years of drunken rages and fights and marriage proposals and death. It’s great tea, but damn, I wanted to tell them all to just calm down for a minute.

Heathcliff went on a sulky walkabout after his true-love-slash-adopted-sister married the snooty guy. Cathy Senior is overjoyed when he eventually returns, which makes Mr Snooty super jealous. Then, Mr Snooty’s sister takes a fancy to Heathcliff, and Cathy Senior is so not jealous of them that she goes proper bonkers and locks herself in her room.

Heathcliff does actually take Mr Snooty’s sister for a wife (seemingly because they both just fancied a shag and this was the only way to get one back then), but being back living with the adopted family that hates him isn’t great for his mental health. Guys, this is just Volume I. Strap in!




I can see why Wuthering Heights has been picked apart so many times – there’s clearly layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, but (unlike Mrs Dalloway) that doesn’t mean that a surface reading isn’t perfectly enjoyable. Of course, you’ve got to keep track of all the love triangles dodecahedrons and set aside any qualms you have about incest…

In Volume II, Heathcliff decides he doesn’t give a damn who’s married whom, and sneaks in to see Cathy Senior while Mr Snooty is at church. They pash for a bit, but she’s still bonkers, and Mr Snooty ends up catching them at it. It turns out Cathy Senior was knocked up (though none of them have mentioned it up until now) – the shock of the whole situation sends her into pre-term labour, and she dies not long after the shorty drops.

This, in turn, makes Heathcliff even more mental (losing his true-love-slash-adopted-sister and all), so Mr Snooty’s sister leaves him… but it turns out she was knocked up as well (gasp!). She runs away to the country to have the kid and eat a lot of peaches… then the story jumps ahead 13 years, and she dies too. I’m serious! I’m not making this up, I swear.

Cathy Junior (yes, Brontë named both characters Cathy, it’s crazy) is a mad little scamp; she thinks her cousins are living far, far away… but it turns out they’re living up the road with Heathcliff, and when she finds out she gets proper pissed off. She becomes secret pen pals with Heathcliff’s son and they trade notes via the milkman for a few days, until they decide they’ve fallen in love. (It kind of seems like deciding you want to marry the guy you’ve been messaging on Tinder for a few days… only that guy is your cousin and living with your mother’s ex-lover and it’s all really fucked up!)

He's Your Cousin - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Heathcliff isn’t at all bothered by the incest, and approves of the match. He’s so determined that Cathy Junior should marry his son that he takes her hostage, knocks her around a bit, and tells her that he won’t release her to see her dying dad until she’s got a ring on it. The whole thing is a study in Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence, and by all rights I should have been shocked and confronted… but I was so confused and bored by their dramatics that it passed by me with barely an eyebrow raised.

To skip ahead to the end (which I’m sure we’re all eager to do by this point): Heathcliff dies and the implication seems to be that he and Cathy Senior go on to have a rollicking good time in the afterlife, haunting the moors and so forth. Cathy Junior outlives her cousin-husband, and eventually falls in love with her other cousin (even though he’s really stupid). They… live happily ever after? I guess?

The thing is, while I was reading Wuthering Heights, I was having a pretty tough time personally – putting on pants in the morning was about all I could manage, let alone immersing myself in Brontë’s madness. I’ll definitely read this book again, not because the first time was so good, but because I could not possibly have got everything out of Wuthering Heights that it has to offer, when so much of my brain space was occupied with other things. Ergo, at this point, I can really only recommend it to someone who’s got the emotional and mental stability to enjoy it properly.

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any emotional turmoil of your own going on, go for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights:

  • “This book wasn’t particularly good and it wasn’t particularly bad. I don’t really like this style but I’m reading the classics so that I can say that I did.” – the1cuttiepoo
  • “Classic Victorian plot of everyone being too proud to be happy.” – Jamie K Devine
  • “A serious and depressing masterpiece where Heathcliff is an evil jerk and everyone dies….” – David Allen Patterson

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Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

With six books down in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I tell you what: I was ready to read some proper smut. I was fed up with Victorian censorship, and grisly murders, and age-appropriate young adult writing. Hell with it all, I wanted some dirty bits! So when I passed by the bargain bin of my favourite second-hand book store and spied a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the prototype of the explicit novel, marked down to just $5… well, that’s just fate, isn’t it?

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was originally published in Italy in 1928, but the full text wasn’t available in other parts of the world until much later. In 1960, Penguin was actually prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for trying to publish the unexpurgated version… to no avail. A publisher’s note dedicates the book to the jurors that declared them not guilty. In fact, their victory in that case established a precedent that allowed for a far greater degree of freedom in publishing explicit content. So, three cheers for Penguin! Without them, we might have no smut to read at all… 😉

“Well,” I thought to myself, “if it caused that much of a stir, it must be good! Right?”.

Wrong.

Richard Hoggart gets it right in the first sentence of his introduction to this edition: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not a dirty book.” I didn’t lose all hope straight away, because he insisted that “dirty minds look for dirt”, so I was sure I’d be able to find some somewhere. After all, the premise is so promising: Lady C is trapped in a sexless marriage (Sir Hubby was been paralysed by a war wound, and we’re all just meant to accept that there’s no way a person with a disability could have sex, okay?), so she goes about finding other ways to keep herself entertained. Lawrence does his part to set the stage, skipping over all of their early lives together so the reader comes straight into (what you would assume is going to be) the action.




In fact, it’s Sir Hubby – fancying himself quite the progressive intellectual – that suggests Lady C find herself a meaningless shag on the side, and get herself knocked up. He wants a kid around to take care of all the trees he’s planted once he’s dead, which is as good a reason to procreate as any, I suppose? Lady C is keen on the idea, because this marriage is the worst: they’re both dead inside and basically indifferent to one another. Off she trots, and I rub my hands together in glee: bring on the smut!

Only I get to about a third of the way through, and it’s all still really hum-drum. Lady C’s life sucks. She mopes a lot about how much her life sucks. She finds a lover and fucks him, twice, but he turns out to be a bit of a dickhead (he has a cry about having to wait around and stay erect while she finishes – damn, masculinity is fragile). So, that doesn’t work out, and then Lady C’s life sucks so much that she basically wants to die. Sir Hubby throws a little bitch fit of his own, because Lady C wants to get a servant. There’s a lot of arguments about capitalism. Where. Is. The. Filth?

Lady C eventually finds a new lover in the form of the bogan gamekeeper, and that cheers her up for about a minute – but from then on, it’s just a downhill run of symbolism. “Oooh, the aristocrat is having an affair with a commoner, industrialisation is bad, capitalism is bad, the intellectuals have unfair dominion over the working classes!”, etc etc. God, there is so much whining! The dirty bits were really far too few and far between to hold my attention at all. What’s worse: they weren’t even that dirty, really. The most obscene thing I came across was the gamekeeper dropping a few c-bombs (and I can see how that might have been shocking pre-sexual revolution). Otherwise, it’s just a load of smack about being all aquiver and stirrings in her womb. Snore.

There’s a lot of Maury-esque drama, too. Lady C finally gets knocked up, but she runs away to Venice for a while so she can tell Sir Hubby that it was some Fabio over there that planted the seed (she’s worried he’ll take it into his head to fire the gamekeeper if he finds out he’s the one sticking it to his wife). Only, while she’s gone, the bogan gamekeeper’s bogan wife shows up and finds Lady C’s shit all over their bogan gamekeeper house. So, she throws a tanty and starts running her mouth off about what a cheating bastard he is to anyone who’ll listen. Word gets back to Sir Hubby, he puts two and two together, and Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper gets fired anyway. Lady C gets to go back to complaining about how much life sucks.

She does her best to salvage the situation – by roping her father and sister into a plot to convince Sir Hubby that the foetus is actually someone else’s, but that spectacularly flops. She has half an idea to marry Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper instead, but he’s not acting happy enough about the pregnancy. And this is pretty much where the novel ends: Lady C and Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper sitting around at opposite as the opposite ends of the country, waiting for divorces from their respective spouses. The ending is almost as anticlimactic as the sex scenes.

I had such high hopes, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover shat all over them. The only redeeming quality was a few cracking one-liners:

“They were just as good as the men themselves: only better, since they were women.”

“Oh, intellectually, I believe in having a good heart, a chirpy penis, a lively intelligence, and the courage to say ‘shit’ in front of a lady.”

“Sex and a cocktail: they both lasted about as long, had the same effect, and amounted to about the same thing.”

Overall, though, even the occasional lol wasn’t enough to save Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the $5 price now seems not such a bargain. After all, you can find better filth on the internet for free… or so I hear 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

  • “It’s a story of a woman, written by a man. I find it silly, unbelievable, unreal. Lady Chat meets a man who, sneaks up to her room, and they immediately get naked. But then she hates him. Not realistic. The pages are filled with paragraphs describing her walk through the woods, describing the flowers? And describing people who, pages later, have died, so what was the point of blabbing about them? This is written to be a movie. Too many detailed conversations of no importance. I keep waiting to get to the “good part” but, there is no good parts in this silly book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Bought for wife! Read a long time ago! Thought it was racey back in the day and quite erotic! My wife wasn’t impressed!” – John S.
  • “Tedious, boring, pompous, distasteful characters, and crude… I only recommend this if you are having troubles getting to sleep, because this classic garbage works better than a pill.” – Holly

 

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I got my toe wet with The Hunger Games, and now I’m diving into the pool with a proper classic. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 – an instant best-seller, though in its first fourteen years, Nathaniel Hawthorne made only $1,500 from its release. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America.

Reading the introductions to the classics is very important: the good ones really do provide some excellent context (and make you feel less stupid, because you know what you’re in for ahead of time). In this case, it turns out Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. So, it’s hard to imagine where he drew his inspiration…

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” proclaimed the first page. This sounded promising (I’m a sucker for books with dirty bits). Alas, save for a couple of references to clandestine trysts and being held against a bosom, I was left wanting.

So, we kick off with a 60-page character sketch of all the fellows that ran the Customs House. The narrator bitches them out pretty hard (calling the other blokes “wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life” – burn!), and I heard it caused issues for Hawthorne upon publication – but he said fuck-the-haters and published as-is anyway, good on him. Anyway, it takes a while to link this chapter to the story itself: 60 pages (of pissing and moaning) in, the narrator finally finds a piece of red cloth with an A stitched into it, and we’re off to the races!




By “off to the races”, I do – of course – mean “let’s see how many ways Hawthorne can show and tell us that he hates the Puritans”. I was expecting this novel to be some kind of statement on the oppression of female sexuality, or at the very least a “romance” as the cover page styled it. In reality, it’s a 300-page rant about how much the Puritans suck. I’m really not sure what Hawthorne was thinking about his target market. I mean, anyone who reads this and feels vindicated already agrees that the Puritans need to get in the bin. And it’s not like Lyle Shelton’s going to pick this up and think “By golly, good point!”.

(And holy crap, Batman – long sentences abound! I’m a fan of the generous use of the comma and semi-colon, but old mate Hawthorne needs to learn to finish a thought. 14 lines without a full stop? I barely manage that after six coffees.)

The protagonist, Hester Prynne, is a bad bitch who had the audacity to get herself knocked up while her husband was lost at sea, and she does not give a fuck that this is all the tea for the girls in town for years. She refuses to give up the name of the baby-daddy, even with a bunch of idle ladies-who-lunch standing around talking about how their husbands should have executed her. She was pretty much the first ride-or-die chick. And she is ready to dismantle the patriarchy and smack the Stockholm syndrome right out of all the women who are slave to it:

“As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself have undergone a still mightier change.”

– Hester Prynne (Bad Bitch)

We find out pretty quickly that the town’s minister is the one who got her into this mess, and I don’t mind saying it’s not exactly a shocking Vader-esque paternity reveal. Even if I hadn’t encountered the spoilers in the introduction: (a) he’s the only male character to be examined thoroughly since we left those old-timers back at the Customs House, and (b) it just fits so neatly into Hawthorne’s vendetta against the Puritanical church. Of course there’s a sordid underbelly! Hell, the foundation of the Church was a woman’s fib about the paternity of a kid born in a barn. In its original context, yes, The Scarlet Letter’s plot “twist” might have been shocking, and the symbolic fuck-you to conservative religion might have seemed a little more subtle, but in this millennium I’m not sure it would even warrant a spoiler warning.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and chest-clutching from Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy, especially once Hester’s long-lost husband returns from sea and starts doctor-ing under an assumed name. Their dramatics seemed kind of quaint, Hubby really didn’t pose much of a threat: he just sort of hung around for seven years, and showed no balls at all. No stabbings. No ratting them out. And yet Hester’s wailing about how “herbs would turn to poison in his hands”. Smh…



Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy hatch a cunning secret plan to sail away together, but Long-Lost Hubby thwarts them by getting himself passage on the very same boat. Not to be outdone in dramatics, Minister Baby-Daddy gives the town one final (excellent) sermon, concluding with a confession of his great sin to the entire town, and then he dies (very dramatically) in Hester’s arms. Well, fuck, says Long-Lost Hubby: according to the conclusion, he brooded over being upstaged for about a year or so, before topping himself and leaving a considerable fortune to that little shit Pearl.

(Oh, yeah, the kid! “Pearl”. A nosy pain in the arse from the beginning. She wouldn’t stop asking questions and running amok, the absolute worst. Do not want.)

The themes of The Scarlet Letter are pretty common and timeless; it’s not hard to see why it’s been adapted for the stage and screen a few million times. It’s a good one to talk about at parties, but the way in which it’s written isn’t all that engaging (God, Hawthorne needed an editor to add a few full stops). I probably won’t read it again, but you should give it a go if you’re into an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Scarlet Letter:

  • “Did this for school. It was awful. Luckily, I got it for free since it’s so old. But now that means I can’t burn it. That being said, I did like it as a digital download, and that really helped with reading since looking up words is so easy.” – Kyle
  • “I find Hawthorne descriptive to the point of tedious. I believe writers got paid by the word in his day, and it certainly seemed so in the beginning of the book…” – Cynthia D. Feeney
  • “Shipped on time and reads like a book” – Claude Womack

 

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