Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Thriller

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray has a special place in my heart, but probably not for the reason you’d expect. See, I have a talent for stumbling upon amazing secondhand bookstores everywhere I go, and my honeymoon was no exception! While searching for cheap happy hours in Tel Aviv, my new husband and I discovered The Little Prince Bookstore & Cafe, where I picked up The Collins Collected Works of Oscar Wilde for just $20AUD (one of my best book bargains ever!). Every time I look at this book, I think back to that amazing trip. I decided to read The Picture of Dorian Gray next because I’d read somewhere that Oscar Wilde was a big fan of Henry James, but I tried not to hold that against him. Plus, my new husband had read the entire collected works upon our return to Australia, and he promised me I’d love it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel, kind of along the same lines as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but cleverer and more subtle. It exists in several versions, and has one hell of a history. Basically, Oscar Wilde submitted the manuscript (his only novel) to Lippincott Monthly Magazine in 1890, and they agreed to publish it… but, unbeknownst to Wilde, the editor cut out about 500 words, worried that all the references to adultery and homosexuality would offend the delicate sensibilities of the British literary critics. They managed to get offended anyway, even with the offending passages removed, and thus began a year of barbs exchanged via the British press. Wilde published pieces defending the nature of his art, while the reviewers trolled him endlessly and basically accused him of trying to turn everybody gay. In 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as a stand-alone book for the first time, and Wilde had made significant revisions (he threw in seven additional chapters, and a preface detailing his defence of the rights of the artist). This final version is the one included in the Collins collection.

So, what’s it all about? Well, the protagonist – Dorian Gray – is a beautiful young man, a lost soul in many respects. He encounters an artist, Basil Hallward, who falls head over heels in love with him (kinda – in this version, Basil is more into his art and sees Dorian as his “muse”, but in the original uncensored version it was all about the gay lust). Basil convinces Dorian to pose as the subject of a full-length oil portrait. While Dorian is posing, one of Basil’s friends drops by – one mister Lord Henry. Now, this is a deal-with-the-devil kind of story, and in this case Lord Henry = Devil, just so you know…


Dorian is seduced by Lord Henry’s hedonistic approach to life; he espouses indulging every whim and desire for beauty and sensuality. Basil finishes the portrait, and Dorian laments (out loud!) that he must grow old while the painting will remain young and beautiful forever. The magical wish-granting fairy overhears him (I assume – Wilde never really explains how this happens) and the portrait begins to age, while Dorian remains in his first blush of youth.

Dorian totally ghosts Basil (smh), and he chases after Lord Henry, living a life of immoral pleasures. Dorian has pretty much sold his soul but at least he sold it for a bunch of money and booze and drugs and sex – that’s worth it, surely! There’s no woo-y supernatural bullshit; it’s all presented as a completely normal and realistic turn of events that Dorian would remain young and beautiful while the portrait grows old and haggard, and you get totally lured into the story without needing to check your critical thinking skills at the door.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is packed with historical and literary references. I confess, I let them fly over my head for the most part – I didn’t even bother to check the footnotes most of the time (what a philistine!). You’ll probably get more out of the story if you look them up, but even if you don’t it’s abundantly clear that Mr Wilde was a very smart chap. This whole story is about aestheticism and the double-lives we all lead, and he picks it apart beautifully without once sounding like a snob. I bet he would have had some real shit to say about Instagram if he were alive today.




Wilde wasn’t just a clever cookie, he was also endlessly quotable! I felt like every page had some kind of zinger that I wanted to jot down. On page one(!), he says “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”, which is just a damn good point. On page three, he points out that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. On and on it goes…

Wilde also had a deep emotional investment in his only novel. He once said:

“Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.”

To his credit, this was a fun read! It probably doesn’t quite rise to the level of Recommended for Keeping Up With The Penguins, but I’m still in awe of it. My tl;dr summary would be this: The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth and an endless supply of drugs and liquor. Imagine how that works out…


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

  • “Early it was moving ver slow. After Dorian killed the painter, it moved and finished. Finally it came to an end. End was good.” – Musari Sub
  • “It is a book. What is not to like” – JAC
  • “This book is creepy. I had to sleep with the lights on. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.” – Lavender Murray
  • “Just read the book I hate being alive it’s a good book everyone knows it just read it amazon sucks” – Alex
  • “I ordered this for my daughter. It was as described in the description.” – Dale LePrad
  • “The entire book can be paraphrased in two sentences and you will wish it had been.” – Nickalaus Luger

 

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

I picked up a copy of Paula Hawkins’ commercial breakthrough novel, The Girl On The Train, in a poky little Tel Aviv bookstore of all places. I was on my honeymoon, and I’d been searching desperately for a public bathroom. I stumbled upon this little gem instead, and paid the grand sum of 18 shekels, which converted to about $7 back home, I think. (Note: I found a bathroom shortly afterwards, never fear.)

The Girl On The Train was released in 2015, and debuted at #1 on the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list. It went on to hit a bunch of similar success benchmarks over the next few years, not the least of which was an edition run with those five magic words printed on the front cover: “Now A Major Motion Picture”. Of course, I haven’t seen the film, but conventional wisdom suggests that reading the book first is always the best idea anyway.

Even though there is only one girl on the train, this one is told from the perspective of three different narrators. Hawkins flicks back and forth between their perspective, each providing different pieces of the puzzle. It was a nice change – refreshing even, reading the stories of fictional women that were actually written by a woman. You forget how important diversity is until you find yourself reading through a List written almost exclusively by old white guys.

If Women Wrote Men The Way Men Wrote Women - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t get me wrong: The Girl On The Train is hardly on the front-foot when it comes to feminist literature. The title is the first clue (referring to grown women as “girls” in titles is one of my pet peeves), but I also took personal issue with the fact that the only reason given for the titular girl’s spiral into alcoholism was her apparent infertility *eye roll*. Chalk that up as another example of a female character’s only depth being her distress over the status of her womb.

I know I’m being snarky, but I can’t help it. The girl (Rachel is her name, by the way) wouldn’t have found herself in this mess if she weren’t so concerned about being barren. To cope with her depression, she self-medicates with alcohol, and stares creepily from the window of a moving train into the backyards of her ex, his new baby-mumma, and their neighbours. She lives out this routine of black-outs and creepy staring every day until one day she witnesses something kind of dodgy, and then the action kicks off.




Infertility and alcoholism aren’t Rachel’s only issues, if I’m being fair. Hawkins’ publishers probably should have included a major content warning on the cover of The Girl On The Train. I can’t imagine there’s many women out there who aren’t nursing some sore spots on domestic violence, gaslighting, abortion, addiction, mental health… Thematically, it’s a really heavy read. I managed to chew through it fairly quickly, but I was in a good place mentally at the time. I’d imagine reading this one when you’re already feeling dark is a one-way ticket to the bottom of a bottle of tequila.

The Girl On The Train is scary in parts. There are show-downs and confrontations and dark alleyways to get your heart racing.┬áPlus, every character could be the “bad guy”; they’re all fucked up in profoundly disturbing ways, and yet they are all recognisable. Any one of them could be your friend or your partner or your neighbour or your family, which is really the scariest part of all. The whole way through, you need to bear in mind that your experience as a reader is filtered through the (very subjective) lens of an incredibly unreliable narrator. You’ve got to keep a close eye on the dates, too – even within chapters, the stories aren’t told chronologically. It’s very cleverly (deliberately) done to disorient the reader, and it’s probably the most masterful element of the book.


My tl;dr summary of The Girl On The Train would be this: barren drunk stalker “girl” witnesses what could be a clue to what could be a crime, and you’ve got to swim through some very choppy waters to get yourself back on solid ground after that. I would only recommend this one if you’re in the mood for an easy read with heavy content. If you’re a thriller aficionado you might find it cliche, and if you’re in a dark place it might trigger some stuff for you: you’ve been warned.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Girl On The Train:

  • “How boring and cliche. These days, the hand that rocks the publishing cradle is the extra money in the bank just about anyone who is on the bestseller list has to drink coffee at bourgeois cafes whilst waiting for heir manuscript to be picked up and published. Barf.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This train took me nowhere.” – Sactomike
  • “BAD AND BORING” – snqrene
  • “Not for blokes! Way to introverted and boring.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Silly women’s book” – frances
  • “If you are male, this book makes you feel like a dirty shirt. I don’t recommend it for anyone with hope for any relationship to succeed.” – Michael O.

 

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Dracula – Bram Stoker

I was casually strolling past the secondhand bookstore a couple of months ago, minding my own business, when this bad boy peeked out from the bargain bin, advertising itself at the irresistibly reasonable price of $3. Normally, such circumstances would be cause for much rejoicing, except that they came the day after I had promised my husband I would purchase no more books until after our honeymoon (an ill-fated attempt at fiscal responsibility). I had some shame-faced ‘splaining to do when I came home with a brand new copy of Dracula under my arm (even if it was one of the best book bargains ever).

Think what you will, but I’ve never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’ve never read Twilight or any other semi-erotic watered-down vampire romances, and I’ve avoided basically all vampire-themed pop culture since I was a child (when I discovered, thanks to the selection of spooky books at the local library, that vampires scared the pants off me). So, I came at Bram Stoker’s Dracula with a very clean slate.

Stoker didn’t write the first vampire novel (Dracula was published in 1897, and there were at least a handful of others that appeared before that), but his work has certainly been the most enduring. At first, it garnered pretty much the same reception as Twilight has had today – the hoi polloi enjoyed it well enough, but it was ignored as second-rate nonsense by literary critics right through until the second half of the 20th century. The shift in public opinion came with the emergence of psychoanalysis. All of a sudden, Stoker’s book could be read as an expression of pretty much any kind of “sexual deviance” you can imagine: female sexual empowerment, homoeroticism, interracial fucking, incest and/or pedophilia… pick your poison. Attention from the literary elite and popularity with the masses finally evened out with the advent of film adaptations. As of 2009, Dracula had featured as a major character in approximately 217 films (and, here’s a fun fact, that’s second only to Sherlock Holmes, who has featured in 223). Still, Stoker barely made a dime off the original publication. He was forced to apply for literary grants towards the end of his life, and the note on the author in the front of edition has the best closing line ever:

“Stoker died in 1912, probably of syphilis.”

The story of Dracula‘s migration from Transylvania to London (in search of new blood and young dames) is told through a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. We start out with newly-minted solicitor Jonathan Harker starting a detailed diary of his journey to Transylvania to meet with the Count. He details his initial days there, and the dawning realisation that he is a prisoner in the castle where his host is a literal monster who sleeps in a coffin and summons wolves to eat people. I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but ol’ Jonno was a bit slow on the uptake (as are pretty much all of the characters, really – they should have spent less time writing in their diaries and more time watching what was going on around them).

Just as Jonno is making his exodus from Casa de Creepy, his diary entries stop, and we shift to the letters and journals of his wife and her best friend. They’ve been holidaying at the beach, and weird shit starts happening there too. There’s a massive storm, a missing dog, a shipwrecked boat with no one on board except a dead captain, and the friend sleepwalks right into the arms of an honest-to-gosh vampire. Mrs Jonno doesn’t seem to realise that all of this is weird, though. She’s too busy practicing her shorthand and wondering where the fuck her husband has got to.


At this point, Jonno and his missus both disappear from the story for a bit, and we flip back and forth between newspaper articles describing the apparent illness of the wife’s friend (must’ve been a slow news day), and a wolf that escaped from the zoo. A bunch of the friend’s ex-lovers gather to her bedside, and one of them calls in his doctor mate – Van Helsing – to see if he can sort her out. In the end, though, she dies, and Van Helsing has them cut off her head and stuff her mouth full of garlic.

It’s a bit of a bummer, but everyone seems to just keep calm and carry on. Van Helsing definitely has the hots for Mrs Jonno, he won’t shut up about how she’s “just as smart as a man” and “God must love her a whole lot”… which is probably why everyone freaks the fuck out when Dracula goes after her.

All of the Madonna-whore subtext just bubbles over at this point in the story, and – just to make sure you haven’t forgotten about those super-important Victorian gender roles – all of the MEN go about BEING MEN and devise a VERY MANLY PLAN to slay the evil dragon vampire. This all carries on for quite a while. It gets a bit Moby Dick-esque actually: all the way down to the last 20 pages and the chase is on, but where’s the fucking pay-off?




They do finally catch the bad guy, and Mrs Jonno is saved, woohoo. I flick the final page, only to find that the editors have included a stack of explanatory notes at the end… with not a single mark in the actual text to indicate where they apply. Super helpful guys, thank you so much, I hope you treated yourself to a boozy lunch after mocking up that lay-out.

I can see why other people are really into Dracula, all the key elements are there, but… meh. Not for me. It feels like I’ve read a stack of these lately (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for instance) where there’s a floppity jillion interpretations of the text: Freudian, feminist, queer, post-colonial, Marxist, anthropological… by this point, I’ve run out of -ials and -ists. I’m exhausted, guys! It’d be nice to read a book that’s just about what it’s about for once. Luckily, there’s one coming up, stay tuned…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dracula:

  • “I LOVE TO READ HORROR STORIES. YOU CAN USE YOUR IMAGINATION IT’S BETTER THAN LOOKING AT THE MOVIE” – Amazon Customer
  • “read it and find out, geez” – Kadesh
  • “It turns out dracula is the name of the monster” – H.O.
  • “Drac should get a tan.” – Ryan
  • “…. Suspension of disbelief in Dracula’s mystical power is not as difficult as suspension of disbelief in his pursuers’ dedication to their diaries while in the midst of a life or death manhunt….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I didn’t like it cause it’s a book” – Porter Cave

 

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