Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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How To Remember What You Read

It’s all well and good to read a lot of books. You flip those pages every night before bed, at every bus stop, and on every lunch break. You watch your bookshelf pile up with tomes you’ve torn through in record time. But what good is all that effort if you don’t remember what you read?

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

All respect to Ralphie, but remembering what you read is where it’s at. A friend of mine Tweeted the other day that they got half-way through reading a book and realised they had already read it – and that ain’t good! If you’re in the same boat, you’re in luck, because this happens to be my specialty. See, in a former life, I was a psychology graduate (with first class honours, thank you very much!). When I started thinking about what I could tell my friend on how to remember what you read, my brain instantly whirred into cognitive psychology mode, throwing up theories of memory processing and forgetting curves. The fact that I remember any of that stuff – stuff I read in textbooks over five years ago – should be the proof in this bloggy pudding. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical on you – here are my best, practical tips on how to remember what you read.

How To Remember What You Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Get Familiar

Before you even open a book, you should get familiar with what you’re about to read. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. If you’re about to read the memoir of a prominent member of the French Resistance, you probably want to have some background knowledge on WWII. Likewise, if you’re reading a fictional story set in 19th century London, you’ll understand (and therefore remember) a lot more of what’s going on if you’ve got some basic background knowledge to start off with.

Think of this strategy like fishing with a net: your prior knowledge is the 'net' in your memory, and bits of information from the book are the 'fish'. Without a net, they swim right past you, but if you've got a good strong net in place, you're going to catch (remember) a lot of stuff.Click To Tweet

It doesn’t have to be a long and drawn-out research process. Usually, just reading the introduction is enough – it will usually give you some kind of political and socio-economic context for a work of fiction, or a background on the author and the subject matter for non-fiction. If you want to go a little deeper, you’ve probably got a device in your pocket (or maybe you’re holding it in front of your face right now!) that can connect you to literally everything you might need to know about that book. So, really, it’s not that hard! 😉

I really should have done this myself when I read A Passage To India. There was no introduction in my edition, but I forged ahead without taking the time to research any further, and I ended up having to stop and Google things constantly as I was reading.


The idea of remaining actively engaged in a single pursuit for any extended period of time is kind of a joke in the age of instant notifications and the 24-hour news cycle. Believe me when I say, though, that you’ll notice a huge difference in how you remember what you read if you make an effort. Don’t have the TV on “in the background”, don’t check your phone, don’t cook dinner with one hand and hold your book with the other (besides being bad for memory, that’s just dangerous!). Even if you can only give 20 minutes of focused attention per day, or 10 minutes, or 3 precious minutes before your kids wake up, do it. Take whatever time you can to focus wholly and solely on what you’re reading.

In fact, it’s probably better to do it that way. Even without modern distractions, the average human brain has trouble staying completely focused for long stretches, but finds it relatively easy to maintain focus for shorter periods of time. Find whatever time period is optimal for you, and commit to using it for focused reading every day.

Sure, it might take you months to get through a book if you’re reading it in ten-minute bursts, but so what? It’s a huge mistake to get all hung up on reading “fast”. Burning through a book quickly is actually detrimental to your recall. When you space out your reading – a few chapters here, a few chapters there – you force your brain to shift the new information from working memory to long-term storage (because you’re going to need it later when you pick it up again). It’ll stick around in long-term storage for a while, especially seeing as you’re rehearsing the memory every time you go to knock out a few more pages. If you read the entire book in a single sitting, your brain doesn’t need to store as much information – after all, you’re not going to need to remember where to pick it up again, are you? Your brain will abandon all that lovely gooey information in favour of something more valuable that it will actually need later. So, read in short, focused bursts, and you’ll find you retain a lot more.

Think About What You’re Reading

I know, I know, this sounds laughably obvious, but hear me out! You’d be surprised at how many of us read passively, not really thinking about what we’re taking in and just letting the words wash over us. That can feel really good (like mindlessly binge-watching 22 episodes of a ’90s sitcom), but it’s not great if you’ve set a goal of remembering what you read.

So, what’s the easiest way to engage your brain? Challenge it! Find ways to put it to work. Your brain is like a border collie: it wants work to do, and if you don’t give it any, it’s going to run off and find something else to play with (or take a nap in the sun).

Try these tricks to get your brain into gear as you’re reading:

  • Ask yourself questions about what you’re reading as you go. “Why would the protagonist do that? Is it what I would do if I were in her shoes? What do I like about the way this author writes? What’s the point that the author is trying to get across here?” It sounds really basic, but pausing after every few pages and posing a question like this to yourself will force your brain to actively engage with the content to formulate an answer, and that’s, like, nine-tenths of the effort getting it to store the information for recall later.
  • Pause and visualise a scene or a character. Imagine what they look like, what they sound like, and make the whole thing as vivid as possible using the details that the author has given you.
  • Link what you’re reading to things that you already know. That could mean putting the background knowledge to use, or it could simply mean finding parallels between the book and your life experience. Say the author mentions someone’s birthday – see if you can figure out a way to remember that (maybe it’s the same day as your wedding anniversary, or a week before a major public holiday).
  • Stop at the end of each section or chapter, and try to paraphrase what you’ve just read to yourself. What happened? What did the author explain? What new information came to light? What do you need to remember?

Bonus: these tips won’t just help you remember what you read, they’ll also help you understand and apply what you read, so it’s a win-win-win!

Take Notes

For me, this is the most crucial step in remembering what I read. I’m constantly pausing to scribble something down – a great line, a thought I’ve had about a character, something interesting the author has done with perspective… In fact, it was these notebooks full of scribbles that gave rise to Keeping Up With The Penguins! 😉

There are different schools of thought as to whether it’s “okay” (or even optimal) to write in the books themselves – notes in the margins, highlighting or underlining the text, etc. At the end of the day, whether you choose to write in your books is between you and whatever God you believe in. I’m from the school that says writing in books is sacrilegious, and I will never, ever do it as long as I live. That’s why I always have a notebook on me when I’m reading. I never write essays or anything particularly long-winded – it’s mostly bullet-points and diagrams, sometimes a paragraph or two if I’m really moved by what I’m reading.

The most important thing about taking notes is that you take them, regardless of how or where. Find a method that works for you, one that you’re likely to stick with. It might sound like a chore, but if your goal is remembering what you read, this is probably the best thing you can do – writing information down helps you to remember it, whatever your learning style, whatever you’re reading. Plus, you’ll have the notes to refer back to later if the memory doesn’t stick!

Read Out Loud

If “thinking about the book you’re reading” sounded too obvious, then this one undoubtedly sounds too silly.  I mean, what kind of loon reads out loud to themselves, right? Loons that want to remember what they read, that’s who!

Reading out loud gives your brain additional ways to code and retain the information. In addition to remembering reading the words visually, you have the opportunity to remember hearing them, and producing them with your own speech. This is particularly important if you’re an auditory learner (who learns best by listening, rather than by reading), but it will be helpful for anyone. There are a number of other benefits, too: for instance, if you tend to read for speed, reading out loud forces you to slow down and really think about what’s in front of you.

You get bonus points if you re-read and/or repeat crucial parts of books this way. I don’t think it will come as any great surprise that repetition is great for strengthening memory. If there are particular parts of the book that you really need to lock in your mind-safe, try reading them once and taking notes as you go, then going back later and reading the relevant parts out loud to yourself.

Teach Someone Else (Preferably, A Toddler)

There are about a dozen different sayings and quotes about this, and they all boil down to the same thing: you’ll understand and remember something better if you teach it to someone else. That’s because your experiential memory is the strongest kind there is (you’re more likely to remember something you experience than something you read), so you should really be taking advantage of that.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman’s technique for remembering what you read included this vital step. The “Feynman Technique” (creative name, eh?) includes choosing and learning about a concept, then doing your best to explain it to a toddler. That will help you identify any gaps in your own understanding, at which point you can return to your materials and review them until you’re ready to try again. Clearly, it worked for him!

The whole idea of explaining it to a toddler, rather than an adult, is that it forces you to condense your learning and simplify the concepts, ensuring that you truly understand what it is that you’re passing on rather than just regurgitating fancy words. If you can’t explain it to a toddler, you probably don’t understand it well.

If you don’t have a toddler on hand, that’s okay – you can still pass on your new-found wisdom. Participate in a book club, or talk to family and friends who have read the book (or comment on a blog… ahem!). Whatever you choose, the very act of discussing the content with someone else gives your brain all the more opportunity to strengthen the memories by associating them with other things (the conversation you have and your experience of it). The more connections your brain makes between the content and your experiences, the stronger your memory and the longer it will last.

Finally, Choose Wisely

Perhaps this should have come first, but I think it’s a good note to end on: choose the right book. You’re going to have a much better shot at remembering something you find interesting and entertaining than you will something that bores you to tears. Make sure you have a clear idea of why you’re reading the book (for fun, for work, for curiosity’s sake), and why you want to remember what you read (to apply it at work, to ace your exam, to improve your own writing). If you’re just reading a book so that you can say that you did, or because “everyone else is reading it”, you probably have no personal stake in it at all. Your chances of remembering it in great detail won’t be good. Move on to another book – one that’s more suited to your tastes and circumstances and needs. You’ll find that memory comes much easier!

The quality of your reading matters infinitely more than the quantity of your reading. As I said in the beginning, it’s all well and good to be the fastest reader in the world… but what are you actually getting out of those 10 books per week? Far better to take your time and really immerse yourself in a book that you love, and get everything out of it that you can, don’t you think? When you do that, and embed some really strong memories of what you read, you get to carry it with you for the rest of your life.

How’s your book recall? Do you use any of these strategies? Do you have any other tips? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

Look at this gorgeous pristine hardcover edition of A Passage To India. I picked it up from my local secondhand bookstore for just (get this) $8! I’m not usually a hardcover reader, but for a bargain like this… I can be convinced.

A Passage To India is a 1924 novel by English author E.M. Forster. He based it on his own experiences in the subcontinent, and nicked the title from Walt Whitman’s 1870 poem “Passage to India” (published in his Leaves of Grass collection). The novel won the 1924 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and has since been named in multiple “top 100 books written in English” lists. That’s how it ended up on The List, as a matter of fact!

Going in, I knew shamefully little about the British Raj. If you’re in the same boat, don’t worry, I’m here to break it down for you: the British Raj is the name given to the rule by the British Crown in India, which lasted from 1858 through to 1947. A Passage To India required quite a bit of Googling, because I was completely unfamiliar with the language and customs of that period. If you’re considering reading this one, brushing up on some background knowledge beforehand will greatly enhance your understanding, so fire up Wikipedia and get down to business!

The story begins with Adela Quested, a young British school teacher. She arrives in Chandrapore (a fictional Indian city where the majority of the action happens), accompanied by her friend Mrs Moore. Adela has come to India to decide whether she wants to marry Mrs Moore’s son, Ronny Heaslop (yes, you had to travel half-way around the world to find a husband in the days before Tinder).

An English bloke, Cyril Fielding, hosts a party shortly after her arrival, and there she and Mrs Moore meet Dr Aziz – and he’s pretty much the main man of the story from then on. He makes a (totally empty) offer to host them on an outing to the Marabar Caves, but the silly ladies actually take him up on it, so he’s totally screwed.

Now, a lot of the story seems to be implied, written into the subtext, so I may have missed quite a bit. On the one hand, A Passage To India taught me a lot (especially with all that Googling), but on the other I really wanted to tell Forster that assuming the reader’s prior knowledge of the social mores of the British Raj really isn’t the best way to get your point across. I did notice, though, that he had a really interesting way of privileging the Indian perspective. Maybe I’ve been buried in the Victorian classics for too long, but it felt really refreshing to see those colonial pricks get called out for what they were.

“No, that is where Mrs Turtan is so skillful. When we poor blacks take bribes, we perform what we are bribed to perform, and the law discovers us in consequence. The English take and do nothing. I admire them.”

It’s not all race- and class-commentary – there are some absolutely hilarious moments! I couldn’t always work out whether Forster was being ironic or whether the comedy was incidental, but I always got a chuckle either way.

“Miss Derek said ‘Golly!’

Undeterred by the expletive, the old man swept on.”

Things started to get a little clearer about half-way through, when the false rape allegation happens. Oooh, yeah – that’s a thing! See, during the trip to the Marabar Caves, Adela thinks she finds herself alone with Dr Aziz in one of the caves, and she panics and flees. She tells everyone that Aziz followed her into the cave and tried to grab her, and she fended him off. In reality, he was in another cave altogether – and Forster makes it pretty damn clear that the word of a white woman is worth far more than the defense of a brown man. The colonisers have very little evidence, but they still arrest Aziz and put him through a trial. Cyril Fielding (the guy who threw that party back at the beginning) is ostracised and condemned as a blood-traitor when he publicly declares his support for Aziz. Mrs Moore also believes in Aziz’s innocence, but she ships back to England (and dies on the way) before she can testify for him. So, pretty much everyone who supports Aziz in his defence is blacklisted or dead.

The trial goes all to hell when Adela recants (she confesses that she “misinterpreted the cave’s echo as an assault by Aziz”, which is the weakest fucking excuse I have ever heard in my life and I literally rolled my eyes). All the racial tensions boil over, and a full-on riot breaks out. This is where A Passage To India really retains its relevance to today’s social dynamics, and it’s hella interesting. Aziz has refused to be a “good Indian” in response to Adela’s accusation, and then again when she withdraws, and he is absolutely pilloried by the British for it – much like Western countries still carry unfair expectations for “grateful migrants” (if you’re not sure what I mean by that, check out this fantastic piece).

“You think that by letting Miss Quested off easily I shall make a better reputation for myself and Indians generally. No, no. It will be put down to weakness and the attempt to gain promotion officially. I have decided to have nothing more to do with British India, as a matter of fact. I shall seek service in some Moslem state, such as Hyderabad, Bhopal, where Englishmen cannot insult me any more. Don’t counsel me otherwise.”

Interestingly, Forster’s earlier drafts of the novel actually had Aziz guilty of the assault, and convicted at trial. Forster changed this for the eventual publication, and wrote a more ambiguous ending. I’m glad he did, to be honest; I think a lot of the value of A Passage To India (as far as I’m concerned) would have been lost with the original version.

And what happens in the end? Well, Adela flees back to England, never to return to India. Aziz severs all ties with Fielding, assuming that his friend actually had the hots for Adela (which, of course, he didn’t, but them’s the breaks). Two years later, Aziz and Fielding reunite, having moved on to living their best lives – Aziz is a physician to a Raj, and Fielding has married Mrs Moore’s daughter. The final pages of the books are dedicated to Aziz, as he explains to Fielding (and the reader) that he still believes India can be reunited and free from the British Raj. He explains that he and Fielding cannot be friends until the British go back to where they came from. It’s not a happy ending, per se, but it’s sure as shit pretty poignant in a post-Brexit world.

If you’re going to read A Passage To India, you need to bear in mind not only the social mores of the British Raj but also the context in which the book was published. Most books about India at the time described it as a wasteland full of savages (think the white guys in Disney’s Pocahontas), and romanticised the colonisation. Forster completely turned all that on its head, writing a story where the Indians were the good guys, and the British were the ones cocking it all up. A Passage To India isn’t perfect, by any means (for starters, it didn’t even really condemn British imperialism, more just pointed out that it wasn’t entirely perfect), and there are some very valid criticisms of how Forster handled his portrayal of race relations in India. Still, I give Forster a lot of credit.

I wouldn’t call A Passage To India a fun read, mostly because it’s bloody hard work. It’s certainly not for everyone, to say the least. But if you’re interested in expanding your horizons and you want to start looking into post-colonial literature, you probably want to give A Passage To India a once-over first.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Passage To India:

  • “This is not a good copy. The first chapter is not there.” – Ed Wristen
  • “I didn’t enjoy this book, but im not sure it’s the authors fault, its just not a great story.” – Nikki
  • “beyond words. pun intended.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s going on my tombstone” – Miles Lovell
  • “This book threatens meaning badly.
    (too bad it isnt possible to give less than one star)” – forster hater


7 Most Boring Tropes In Literature

Have you ever read a book and come across a particular theme, plot device, character type, or cliche story-line that immediately made you roll your eyes? “Ugh, another one of these!”. The offender is probably a trope, and a boring, over-used one at that.

The word trope actually has several meanings, but in this case we’re using it to describe common literary devices, motifs, themes, and cliches. When used well, tropes can be really valuable, helping the reader to understand the writer’s intentions and reference points. Unfortunately, many of them have been used so often and so poorly that the mere hint of them will absolutely ruin an otherwise fine story. What’s worse, some tropes are outright damaging and discriminatory. This week, I’m going to shame the seven most boring tropes in literature.

7 Most Boring Tropes In Literature - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Let’s start with the easiest, most widely decried trope in literature (and movies, and television, and every other medium): the manic pixie dream girl. The pithy name comes from a review of the movie Elizabethtown, back in 2005:

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imagination of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Come on, you can probably name at least a dozen of these without even trying: the adorable, quirky, fun-loving girl who is nothing but a ray of sunshine in the life of a retiring young gentleman. She shows him all that is good in the world. Even though he is a miserable bore (and he probably won’t shut up about his screenplay, or his band, or his other miscellaneous “artistic” endeavor), she inexplicably takes a liking to him, and she drags him along on crazy “adventures” that are just, like, so totally random: hiking, karaoke, shuffleboard, hash brownies, spontaneous trips, dive bars, swinger parties, whatever. Think Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Sam from The Perks of Being A Wallflower, or even Augustus from The Fault In Our Stars (yes, lately even boys have been manic pixie dream girls, how lucky for them!).

Ask any random person on the street what they consider to be the most boring trope in literature, and chances are the Manic Pixie Dream Girl will rate a mention.

The Newbie Who Saves The Day

We see this one everywhere, particularly in young adult and fantasy fiction (think Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games), because it’s easy writing that makes for easy reading. Take a thoroughly average protagonist, and throw them into a brand new world – a world of wizards, or a world of luxury, or whatever. They need to learn the ropes quickly, so luckily there’s a cast of supporting characters that have been doing this shit for years, and are miraculously willing to volunteer all their time and knowledge to support the protagonist. See, this way, the reader gets to learn all of the “rules” of the new world right alongside the protagonist, which is a much better read than just pages and pages of straight-up explanation. Neat, eh?

What really bores me, though, is that the newbie (who, remember, has only been there for a minute and has had to take a crash course in magic or fighting or whatever) somehow still manages to save the day. They beat the most notorious dark wizard of all time, or win a reality show by fighting all opponents to the death, or whatever. You’re expected to believe that a completely unqualified, inexperienced, sometimes-talented-but-always-the-outsider protagonist is able to decisively beat the bad guy and prove themselves the Greatest Of All Time. Yeah, oh-kay! (yawn)

This has been done so often, and yet it never once – in my recollection – has seemed realistic. Sometimes that’s okay, because the writing is so good and the story so engaging that you can forgive the use of a hackneyed plot device… but more often than not, it just bores the pants off me. I’d much rather read about a newbie that falls on their face, any day of the week. Or, heck, how about giving one of those “supporting” characters the recognition they deserve?

The Woman Who Is Defined By Her Womb

OK, this is the one that really lights my fuse, so apologies if I sound particularly angry when I say what the heck is up with all the female characters that are defined solely by their wombs?

This particular source of annoyance and boredom can take many forms. It might be the desperate housewife who had children but wishes she hadn’t (forgive me, but that’s the vibe I got from Mrs Dalloway). It could be the woman thrown into the depths of despair by her infertility, and it’s really the only thing that drives her character (hello, The Girl On The Train!). Plus there’s the women that dream of nothing but meeting the “right” man so they can get down to babymaking, the plucky older gals who are “brave” enough to try surrogacy, the beleaguered single mothers, the driven career women who don’t have children and it’s the sole source of conflict in their lives… on and on it goes.

I understand that these are all real issues for women. This trope actually reflects a great number of very real stories. I know a lot of women experiencing these problems personally… and yet, I also know that the state of their womb is never the only facet of their personality. They have other motivations, desires, conflicts, and needs. I’m yet to meet a woman whose whole and sole purpose in life is to be found in her uterus.

This particular trope in literature wouldn’t be such a big deal if male characters were reduced and defined in the same way. Can you name half as many men in fiction who are equally defined by their fatherhood, or lack thereof? I doubt it. Male characters are allowed to just be characters unto themselves, with many and varied flaws – like John Self in Money: A Suicide Note (see my full review). Female characters aren’t granted that “luxury”, and I say boo to that!

Related: I hate the trope in film and television of women going into labour and delivering so fast that they “can’t make it” to the hospital. They end up birthing children in the backs of cabs, in bars, on the sides of roads, at their best friends’ weddings… sure, it heightens the drama, but my goodness, couldn’t they strive for something remotely realistic? In real life, labour can last for days, and women almost never drop a shorty in under 5 minutes. The sooner film and television writers give up that particular trope, the better!

The Dead (or Missing) Girl

Why are we so obsessed with dead (or missing) “girls”? (And, yes, they are always “girls” – fully grown women that we infantilise as part of a gross publishing trend that seeks to deny female characters anything that hints at actual agency.)

This one seems to have become particularly prominent in the last few years (see, once again, The Girl On The Train), but it has been bubbling up in television (think shows like Law & Order: SVU) for much longer than that. Once again, there’s a disturbing misogynist element in this particular trope in literature. I recently heard an interview with Roxane Gay (who I love and admire endlessly), where she said (I’m paraphrasing, forgive me) that dead girls women are very convenient for storytellers, because they are compliant. They don’t cause trouble. They don’t need a character arc, they don’t need to develop, they don’t need motivations or desires or fears, because their sole purpose is to give purpose to a protagonist (the witness, the boyfriend, the detective).

I think this one is going to linger for a while, because it echoes the cultural scripts we have for the behaviour of girls women. All too often, the dead or missing girl was promiscuous, or naive, or annoying, or broke the “rules” in some other way – and she got what was coming to her, right? Personally, I think this trope (in literature, and in real-life media) is super played-out and boring as all hell.

The Buried Gays

This particular trope has a long and storied history; it waxes and wanes, depending on the temperature of the literature community (and society more broadly) at the time. At its worst, it looks like this: simply put, gay characters get tragic endings.

This usually happens in the context of a mostly-straight story. Historically, it happened more often to female characters (indeed, the trope was originally called “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”), but lately authors have been killing off a lot more dudes. The gay character usually dies as a result of AIDS, a homophobic assault, or suicide – all very real issues for the LGBTIQ community (being that they are disproportionately affected by all of these risks), but so over-represented in literature and other media that it becomes boring to the point of the ridiculous. The problem is not the story of gay deaths, it is that only the gay character dies, or that the character dies as a direct result of… well, gay-ness. Key examples would be Jack from Brokeback Mountain, or poor ol’ Dorian Gray.

Thankfully, we’re on a bit of a down-swing with this one at the moment, and we’re seeing more and more popular representations of happy endings for LGBTIQ characters and couples. Still, I think the effects of overexposure to the buried gays trope will linger for me for quite a while…

Poor Communication Kills

I haven’t nailed down exactly where the terrifically punny name for this one comes from (communication skills, communication kills – geddit?), but whoever came up with it should know that I would very much like to buy them a beer.

This particular trope is a little more vague than the others, but it’s still something that drives me up the wall: the primary source of action or plot development is the fact that characters don’t or can’t communicate with one another. Whether the impediment is caused by character (the one with the information being too stubborn or scared or busy to share) or circumstance (the characters being separated by time, distance, or totalitarian governments), it’s the lack of adequate communication that causes conflict and drives the story forward.

Seriously: think of all the times that things would have worked out just fucking fine if the characters had, y’know, actually talked to one another! Romeo and Juliet might have lived happily ever after. Mina probably never would have copped that nasty love-bite from Dracula. If Madame Bovary had just told her husband that their marriage was choking the life out of her… well, she was still pretty nuts, so things might have ended badly regardless, but my point remains valid!

This literary trope has frustrated the heck out of me for quite some time, but now I’ve seen it done so many times that it just bores me. I just want to shout “talk to one another, dammit, and we can be done with this plot a lot sooner!”.

The Henpecked Husband

Every time I encounter one of these, my mind floats back to Everybody Loves Raymond. Now, I don’t ever recall actually watching that show, but I must have seen bits and pieces from it somewhere – because I can picture very clearly in my head how every episode goes: wife wants something reasonable, husband complains and/or makes joke, wife rolls eyes, canned laughter. Every single time.

I don’t get why so many people find this funny or entertaining. We really seem to collectively get off on highly dysfunctional relationships – or, at least, feel sympathy for the poor little man squished under the brutal thumb of the domineering witch. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any of you that I actually love these “awful” wives and mothers – the loud “bossy” women who could rule the world if they didn’t have to waste all their time fixing the problems of their husbands and sons… but that’s a rant for another day 😉

This particular trope in literature stretches all the way back to the Brothers Grimm (remember how Hansel and Gretel’s father abandoned them in the woods because his wife had had a bloody gut-full?), and still floats around today (in fact, I read a couple just recently in The Dressmaker). Granted, we’re making steps towards actually examining these two-dimensional shrill harpies that have bullied their husbands for so long, and I think that’s great to see – mostly because it highlights how truly boring the henpecked husband trope actually is.

I’ll also give an honourable mention to The White Saviour – I’m not the best person to break downs all of the problems associated with this particular trope (as seen in books like The Help), but I want to reassure you that it bores the hell out of me, and encourage you to check out this piece about the white saviour in film.

You may also notice that I’ve not included The Love Triangle on this list – even though there are so many of them, and they’re often so poorly written. The fact is, I think that there are plenty of love triangles that actually work really well, and some that are downright subversive, and some that are just plain fun. I know it’s not a popular opinion, but love triangles don’t bore me (and they’re usually not as damaging as some of the others listed here). And, in the end, isn’t listing a “love triangle” as a loathed literary cliche, in and of itself, a bit of a cliche? 😉

What trope in literature bores you the most? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis

Remember The Catcher In The Rye? Well, Money: A Suicide Note is basically the grown up’s version. If you like your narrators drunk, rich, and horny, then this is the book for you! Amis reportedly based the book on his experiences as a scriptwriter on the film Saturn 3 (remember that classic?). If this is really what the script-writing life is like, then half the residents of Los Angeles could surely give The Wolf of Wall Street a run for his money.

Money: A Suicide Note follows the story of John Self, a successful ad director who lives for fast food, hard liquor, and hot women. Self travels back and forth between London and New York, trying to get his first feature film project off the ground. Now, Amis very deliberately subverts the tropes of the “Englishman abroad” story; for once, a Brit goes across the Atlantic and isn’t horrified by all Americans. Self actually fits right in.

For the first two thirds of the book, there’s not really much plot – Self just eats and drinks to excess, meets with film stars, and makes rape jokes. (Oh, yeah, you’d better be willing to stomach a barrel of satirical misogyny if you’re going to take this one on.) It’s kind of like a day trip into the mind of Harvey Weinstein.

Self also has a stalker, who calls and bitches him out over the phone whenever he’s in New York. Self calls him “Frank The Phone”. When the plot finally emerges, it builds to a big showdown between the two of them, and that’s when shit really starts to unravel. It turns out that “Frank” is actually Fielding Goodney, his film’s producer. (I was kind of disappointed by that particular plot twist – I thought there would be a Fight Club-esque reveal where the stalker turned out to be a figment of Self’s psychosis.) Not only has Goodney been harassing Self, but the whole film project turns out to be a sham – not only does Self lose every penny he invested, he also loses everything he has (and then some) because Goodney convinced him to personally underwrite all debts and losses. Sucks to be him, eh?

There’s also a weird wife-swapping love story that weaves in and out. Self has a girlfriend in London (Selina) who hits him up for cash every chance she gets. Around the same time that his career falls apart, he finds out that she is pregnant to one of his business associates. Self isn’t all that shook up by it though, because (funnily enough) he has a thing for that very business associate’s wife. It looks, for a minute, like Money: A Suicide Note might have a “happily ever after” 9well, as happy you can get when a nice-enough woman, burned by an unfaithful husband, gets together with a hedonistic slob)… but Selina pulls off a crazy scheme to break them up. So, in the end, Self is broke, alone, and – oh yeah – he finds out that his dad isn’t his dad, and his car breaks down. It’s a rough time all around.

Don’t go feeling too sorry for him: Self is anything but pitiable. He worships at the altar of money and self-indulgence. He’s a consumerist, in every sense of the world – food, booze, drugs, and women – and his appetite is insatiable. It’s all a very clever metaphor, of course, for 20th century capitalism and greed, but Self is so grotesque that sometimes you forget that Amis is being ironic. Really, Self’s only redeeming quality as a narrator is that he’s quite funny.

“But that’s the whole trouble with dignity and self-respect: they cost you so much fucking money.”

– John Self

Yes, Money: A Suicide Note is endlessly quotable, and Self’s narration is full of gems. Just about every sentence could appear on the bottom of a demotivational poster. In fact, I took the liberty of mocking up a couple…

Erections - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Addictions - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And another fun little quirk of the story: Amis randomly introduces himself as a character! On Page 71:

“I once shouted across the street, and gave him a V-sign and a warning fist. He stood his ground, and stared. This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?”

It threw me a little at first, but it was certainly something fun and different. Amis (the character) ends up being a kind of confidant to Self. Self mocks him for “living like a student” (seemingly under the impression that writers get paid big bucks, ha!), but he begrudgingly respects him. Amis tries to warn Self about his self-destructive behaviour, but of course Self doesn’t listen. It was a nifty little narrative technique that I haven’t seen before, so props to (real-life) Amis for that one!

On the whole, Money: A Suicide Note seems a bit dated. It’s very anchored in the 1980s, when pornography was “widely accessible” on VHS (the notion of pornography “addiction” in a time when you had to leave your house to purchase it in hard-copy seems kind of quaint, now, doesn’t it?). If we were try to transplant Money: A Suicide Note into today’s world, the story wouldn’t work – Self would just stare at his phone the whole time, and have UberEats delivered every hour on the hour. Still, if you liked Lolita for Humbert Humbert (but aren’t too hung up on the “beauty” of your prose), you’ll probably enjoy Money. If nothing else, the book is great for a few laughs – thank goodness the humour carries over!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Money: A Suicide Note:

  • “I got this book on a recommendation from an adult film director who named himself after one of the characters. I found it repetitive.” – nestor bloodyvessel
  • “For the most part, I believe drunks like John Self in this novel, crazy people like the Australian pianist in the movie who’s name I can’t remember, and blow-hards like Citizen Kane don’t make interesting protagonists.It takes a Dickens to create works of art based on characters whose mental life seems so circumscribed and repetitive.” – Charles Dickens Dave
  • “I wouldn’t even give it one star. The best word I can find to describe this book is cheesey. It’s about as compelling as a car wreck. I’m wondering how to get rid of it. I can’t recommend it to a friend. It’s not even amusing, just dumb and kind of annoying, especially a few pages before 78, when the narrator mentions the author, Martin Amis, by name as someone whose stalking him. Just dumb.” – A customer


10 Movie Adaptations That Don’t Suck

I confess: in addition to being perpetually behind in my reading, I almost never watch movies. Sure, I have a few tried-and-true favourites that I turn to on nights in alone, but for the most part I never get around to actually watching something new. Any time I’m talking to a stranger and a movie comes up, I’m forced to admit that I’ve never seen it, and I spend the next twenty minutes listening to them list reasons that I “absolutely must” look it up on Netflix as soon as I get home. It’s not a fun way to live, guys! I bring this up because I’m reading my way through a list of classic and popular books, and many of them have (unsurprisingly) been adapted for the big screen. Before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I could have counted the number I’d seen on one hand. This week, all that changes! I carved out a few precious hours and finally dug into that Netflix queue, just so I could bring you this: my (probably incomplete but still valid) list of movie adaptations that don’t suck.

Movie Adaptations That Don't Suck - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Dressmaker

I figured that the subject of this week’s review was as good a place to start as any. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham was published in 2000, a gothic novel set in a fictional Australian town of the 1950s. The film adaptation, starring Kate Winslet and Hugo Weaving, was released over a decade later, in 2015. I know it’s a cardinal sin for a book-lover to admit this, but I think that I liked the film better than the book. It was certainly more fun, more whimsical, and more comedic – all good things, as far as I’m concerned. They had to tweak some elements of the story for the translation to the big screen (the protagonist was struck down with a kind of trauma-induced amnesia, to allow for the “big reveal” of her dark secret about two thirds of the way through), but it was all done really smoothly. Plus, Winslet is absolutely fantastic, not to mention all the other Aussie acting royalty starring alongside her. Watch it here!

Still Alice

The story of Still Alice is every struggling writer’s dream: aspiring author Lisa Genova was struggling to get any interest in her heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s descent into dementia, so she self-published in 2007. Still Alice sold so well that it got the attention of the major publishing houses, and eventually Hollywood – the film adaptation, starring the incomparable Julianne Moore, was released in 2014. I will make no secret of the fact that I am a Julianne Moore fangirl. In my eyes, that woman can do no wrong, and Still Alice was no exception. I was gripped, the whole way through. I mean, the book was fine and everything, but it probably didn’t tug on my heart strings the way that Genova intended – it took Moore’s incredible performance to pull the thing right out of my damn chest. Watch it here!

The Hours

I meant it when I said I love Julianne Moore, and that’s probably why two of her films feature on this list. The Hours is not an “adaptation” of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway of course, but it’s about as close as you can get given that the original text is a crazy stream-of-consciousness modernist ramble. Technically, it’s actually an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, which was itself an adaptation of Woolf’s work… adapt-ception!

The Hours features not only my homegirl Moore, but also Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. That’s one heck of a formidable trio! Kidman is almost unrecognisable (that fake nose!) in her role as Virginia Woolf, writing Mrs Dalloway in 1920s England. Moore plays a pregnant 1950s housewife, living in California and reading Woolf’s book as she struggles with the confinement of her domestic life. Streep plays a modern New York woman, planning a party of her friend with late-stage AIDS in 2001. The stories of these three women weave together across the film, and it is absolutely stunning. I give them all 10/10. Watch it here!

Little Women

This is one of the very few film adaptations I had actually seen before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. Little Women was a childhood favourite of mine; I loved Winona Ryder’s Jo, who dreamed of becoming a writer and refused to be waylaid by silly boys and their silly offers of marriage. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel has been adapted to film six times (and countless more times in television and other media); of course, I’ve not seen any of the others, but how could they possibly top this one? Pre-shoplifting-scandal Ryder is joined by Susan Sarandon, a very young Claire Danes, and an even-younger Kirsten Dunst. When you’re watching it, you’ll probably have to work pretty hard to shut off the nagging intersectional-feminist voice in your head that points out all the problems, but once you do it will make for a truly enjoyable and touching film. Watch it here!


To be honest, what I love most about the 2014 film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is the story behind its creation. Reese Witherspoon optioned the rights to Wild before the book was even released. She had recently founded Pacific Standard, her own production company, with the goal of finding roles for women that were, y’know, actually good. Roles that were layered and complex and stretched further than the tropes to which she had been relegated for so long. So that, in itself, makes this a film – Pacific Standard’s first – worth watching.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, I really appreciated their refusal to blindly adhere to conventions of the film genre. The book did not present a neatly packaged story, there weren’t clearly delineated character arcs, it was chaotic in the way that intensely personal memoirs often are. All too often, books like Wild are re-packaged (see: bastardised) to fit this linear model of plot development that audiences have been trained to expect. But Wild bucked that trend. The filmmakers stayed true to the story of Strayed’s life, and her telling of it, which makes for a fascinating film-watching experience. I’m not sure the movie was “as good” as the book per se, but it certainly didn’t suck. Watch it here!

To Kill A Mockingbird

Up ’til now, I could totally hear all the proper film aficionados rolling their eyes at me, so here’s one with which they can’t possible argue: the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Gregory Peck was breathtaking in his role as Atticus Finch – so much so that he and Lee became lifelong friends. He won an Oscar for Best Actor, and the film won two additional awards (for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Art Direction). It totally has the chops!

The only – only! – flaw in this otherwise-perfect film, as far as I’m concerned, is how the writers limited the role of Calpurnia (the Finch’s nanny, cook, cleaner, and all-round Good People). She had a very strong presence in the book, really influencing Scout’s development (moral and otherwise) as well as playing a pivotal role in the Finch’s relationship with the black community in their small Southern town. Unfortunately, in the film, she was downgraded to a mostly “yes sir, no sir” kind of role, possibly for reasons of scope and time but I was still disappointed. Nonetheless, I really hope that they never try to re-boot this particular adaptation; despite that one criticism, I am certain the original version cannot be topped. Watch it here!

The Fault in Our Stars / The Hunger Games

I’m throwing both of these films into the same category, because I like them for the same reason. The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games both feature teenaged female protagonists, with overwhelming odds to overcome and a complicated love life. The fact is, I’m not sure either of the adaptations constitute “great films” in and of themselves, but they share the same main benefit. In fact, all film adaptations with teenaged protagonists are better than the books (in my humble opinion), for the simple reason that I usually find the internal monologue of teenaged narrators – with all their self-deprecation and worrying and overwhelming emotional investments in questionable relationships – pretty damn annoying. The translation from book to big screen completely alleviates that!

Even where these films use a voice over, it’s used (relatively) sparingly. This allows the plot and the actual action to come to the fore. The story is allowed to speak for itself, without all of the yucky let’s-get-the-reader-to-emotionally-relate-to-this-troubled-teenager guff. So, for that reason, I count both The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games as movie adaptations that don’t suck. Plus, I’d much rather young women watch these than, say, Disney movies where the Prince always saves the Princess in the end. These ladies save themselves, which is a much better message! Watch The Fault in Our Stars here, and The Hunger Games here!

Easy A

This is probably the millionth adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It came very much towards the end of the let’s-adapt-classic-literature-for-the-teen-market trend. Now, Easy A could never measure up to something like 10 Things I Hate About You (a classic of the genre, don’t even try to fight me on this), but Emma Stone is hella loveable, and on the whole the filmmakers did a less-clumsy job than many others in making the storyline of a classic novel accessible to a teenaged target market. Given that I didn’t exactly love The Scarlet Letter, it’s not hard to see why I preferred this version. Watch it here!


So, I watched the original adaptation of In Cold Blood (the one released just after the book, in 1967) – I must say, it wasn’t great, and I scrubbed it off the list for this post pretty quick. But then my husband suggested we watch Capote, the 2005 biopic about Truman Capote’s life during the period he was writing In Cold Blood and, I gotta say: it. was. fantastic! Once again, it’s not strictly an adaptation per se, but it was just so good that I had to include it here!

Phillip Seymour Hoffman does a truly awe-inspiring job in his role as Capote, it goes without saying (the man was a legend), but the bit that really impressed me was the role of Harper Lee’s character. Not a lot of people realise this, but Lee did a lot of work for Capote in the eight years that he spent preparing his manuscript; she was pretty much his research assistant, typist, witness liaison, editor, and emotional support person, all rolled into one. Unfortunately, most histories of Captoe’s life and work gloss over her contributions. This film gave her a much bigger role than I was expecting – granted, probably not quite as big a one as she played in real life, but still so much more than any of the others. If you have any curiosity about the story behind In Cold Blood, including Capote’s controversial friendship with the murderer Perry Smith, this is the film for you! Watch it here!

It would seem that the main ingredient for making a movie adaptation that doesn’t suck is securing a fantastic star – Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Gregory Peck, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were all mind-blowing. Their masterful performances put these movies a cut above all of the other crappy adaptations that are spewed out every year. Have I missed one of your favourites? I’m keen to see more (I’m on a roll!), so let me know in the comments (or give it a plug over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

I’ve got to be honest: The List doesn’t feature as many Australian authors as I’d like. If you have a favourite, please do let me know so I can put it on The Next List! In the meantime, I’ve picked up The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

Believe it or not, The Dressmaker is actually Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000, and it was adapted into a major motion picture (starring Kate Winslet!) in 2015. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”: it’s the product of participating in an RMIT creative writing course that she had never actually intended to join. She just showed up and started spitting fire, inspired by her mother’s life as a dressmaker in a small country town. Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cross-dressing cop (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. She also has a bit of a flirt now and then with a poor bloke who lives in a caravan up the road.

It takes Ham a couple hundred pages (full of veiled references and allusions) to reveal Tilly’s “dark secret”: the locals blame her for the death of a boy who was bullying her when they were children. That’s pretty heavy, I suppose, but then Ham goes and kills off Tilly’s love interest in the same breath, so it’s a fair wallop for the reader. What’s more, he has the most ridiculous death ever – he jumps into a silo (of all things), believing it to be filled with wheat, when it is actually filled with sorghum. The sorghum can’t support his weight, he sinks and suffocates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men are stupid.

Anyway, this second death really sets the locals off, and Tilly is forced to do dressmaking work for people from neighbouring towns. They’re the only ones who don’t care about her small-town scandal(s), and they actually pay her on time, which is very nice of them. This goes on until the community decides to put on a play, and they come to Tilly – hats in hands – asking her to make their costumes. She agrees to do so on the condition that they pay her in full, up-front (fair enough). They pay her using the funds they had saved to insure all the town buildings. Can you see where this is going?

It’s probably a darker ending than you’re imagining (spoiler alert, etc. etc.): Tilly makes the costumes, waits until the whole town has left to perform the play in the next town over… then she burns the whole damn place to the ground. Every single building. All personal effects – even the dresses belonging to her friend the cross-dressing cop – up in flames. Whoosh! The end.

It’s pretty much what we’ve all dreamed of doing (“I’ll show them! I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have my revenge!”), only none of us are crazy enough to actually do it. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a feral version of Sea Change”, which is pretty much spot on. Despite the dark ending, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments. The humour is deeply Australian, though, so I’m not sure how it would translate for an international audience.

Now, when you’re reading The Dressmaker, you can skip over a lot of the seamstress and fashion lingo, if you want. You won’t miss anything as long as you don’t care about being able to picture all her outfits with 100% accuracy. I didn’t bother looking any of it up, and I’m pretty sure I still got the gist. There are a lot of really obvious sewing and clothing similes (“the fog resting around the veranda moved like the frills on a skirt”), but for those an intimate knowledge of dressmaking isn’t required.

Side note: Ham starts to run out of those metaphors and similes about half way through, and has to start using clumsy imagery like this:

“… his toupee had washed off and lay like a discarded scrotum on the grass by his bald head…”

(This was, without parallel, my favourite line from the entire book.)

I took the liberty of watching the film trailer after I’d finished the book. Judging by that alone, the film is a lot more upbeat, and the Tilly character is much more expressive and likeable. Almost every review I’ve read of The Dressmaker says the same thing. So, although it was nice to read a homegrown book for once, I’d probably recommend you give it a pass and check out the movie instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dressmaker:

  • “An absolute steaming pile of rubbish. The author lives up to her surname as she hams it up for the novel. There is a multitude of characters that I didn’t connect with or care about, it might translate well to the big screen but don’t let that tempt you into reading this.” – James Motgomery
  • “I suppose this book is supposed to be humorous, but I found it disgusting. After reading about ninety pages, I was sick of the lurid vignettes of perverts, so I stopped reading. I had expected a story about a young woman who earns her living with her Singer sewing machine. Perhaps that comes further along than I managed to read.” – Linda Appleton
  • “This has to be some kind of satire on life as the characters were totally unbelievable. I give this no stars and think it should be tossed in a fire. Since I have to Star rate it I give it a negative 1.” – Psyched!
  • “No not my type of book. Kept waiting for something nice to happen. Never did.” – diane bradley


Got Beef? Five Famous Literary Feuds

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call authors of literary fiction “gangster” or “bad-ass”. Sure, some of them like a drink, and some of them have dabbled with hard drugs and guns, but for the most part they’re a retiring lot, content to sit at home alone with a cup of tea and a typewriter (and maybe a cat, for company). They wouldn’t dream of entering into public feuds, exchanging barbs in the media and in their work, calling out their contemporaries for getting back on their bullshit. Right? Wrong! If you look closely, you’ll find a long literary history of roasts, sassy comebacks, and petty revenge! Here’s a list of five famous literary feuds…

Five Famous Literary Feuds - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Aldous Huxley vs George Orwell

On the face of it, you’d think that Huxley and Orwell should have been the best of friends. Each penned a novel that has forever changed the way we think about dystopian literature, not to mention the way we think about our own dumpster-fire world. Huxley was even one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton! Comparisons of their work by critics is to be expected, of course, but it turns out that Huxley and Orwell had a sparring match of their own going on…

It all started in 1946. Orwell hadn’t yet written 1984, but he had published a review of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. In his review, he claimed that:

“Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partially derived from [We]. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence.”

OK, fine, by today’s standards it’s hardly a mic-drop, but this is basically the old-timey equivalent of calling out a rapper for using a ghost writer. Huxley, of course, emphatically denied the accusation of plagiarism, claiming not to have even heard of We until after he had completed Brave New World. Everyone let it go for a few years, until…

… in 1949, after the publication of 1984, Orwell received a letter from one Mr Aldous Huxley. Orwell was expecting yet another glowing review (after all, up until that point, he’d been receiving them from all over the world), and Huxley did begin the letter by praising the book as being “profoundly important”. Things then took a turn, though. Huxley’s position can be best summed up as: “Nice try, buddy, but my dystopian future is way more likely to actually happen than yours. Why you gotta be such a Debbie Downer?”

“… whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.”

As best we know, they never buried the hatchet.

Who won? Well, I think we’ve got to call this one a draw. Orwell gets a point for finding (potential) evidence of shady behaviour, but Huxley at least had the balls to tell him off directly. (And by the way, you can read my review of Brave New World here, if you want to see what all the fuss was about…)

Henry James vs H.G. Wells

This is the first of many tales of great literary friendships gone awry. Henry James and H.G. Wells had a once-amiable relationship, built on a foundation of mutual admiration. That all fell to shit when they disagreed on the primary purpose of literature. Wells accused James of treating “like painting [as] an end”, while to him “literature like architecture is a means”. Oooh, snap!

In 1915, Wells published the satirical novel Boon, lambasting James’ writing style. Not many friendships can survive a parody of the other’s work. James accused Wells of producing “affluents turbid and unrestrained” (a stream of wordy shit, basically), and in response Wells called him a “painful hippopotamus” (which is a lot more pithy). The two traded nasty, wounded letters for a while, then their correspondence stopped altogether.

Who won? I’m calling this one for Wells: firstly, because “painful hippopotamus” is a fantastic roast, and secondly, because he kind of had a point. Wells also gets a bonus point for once referring to George Bernard Shaw (in a separate feud) as “an idiot child screaming in a hospital”.

Mark Twain vs Jane Austen

This wasn’t exactly a fair fight, because Jane Austen died several years before Mark Twain was born. However, he dissed her so brutally and so often that it’s surely one of the greatest literary feuds of our time. For instance, Twain once expressed wonder at the fact that Austen had died of natural causes, when – according to him – she should have faced execution for her “literary crimes”. And he didn’t stop there!

“I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

As if that wasn’t enough, he also said (a few times):

“Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”

And also possibly his most pithy insult about one of her novels:

“Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.”

Who won? Given Austen’s reputation for biting social satire, I’m sure she could have come up with a few retaliatory zingers of her own, had she lived to see what Twain thought of her. As it stands, though, I’ve got to give this one to him. He was brutal!

Charles Dickens vs Hans Christian Andersen

In the 1850s, Andersen was what we might now call a Dickens fan-boy (and it’s not hard to see why). Andersen wrote: “Dickens is one of the most amiable men that I know, and possesses as much heart as intellect”. Big talk, given that (at the time) he’d never actually met the man.

The love was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but before the poor guy even arrived, Dickens was slagging him off to all his mates: “He speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”

Andersen’s stay at Casa de Dickens did not improve their relationship. He committed the cardinal sin of overstaying his welcome; Dickens had offered him the use of the guest room for a week, but he ultimately stayed for five. Upon his departure, Dickens was so pissed off that he taped up a note in the room that read:

“Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”

Andersen was never invited back, and eventually Dickens just ghosted him altogether.

Who won? This wasn’t even a contest: Dickens won by KO.

Salman Rushdie vs The World

Salman Rushdie is basically the Kanye West of literature. He never forgets his enemies’ faces, and he has a never-ending supply of sass. He counts among his foes Cat Stevens (whom he called “stupid”), Kalam Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute (a “garden gnome”), broadcaster Mark Lawson (from whom he once stole a cab, the ultimate insult), and literary journalist James Wood (whom he once accused of having altered a review of his novel to appease his U.S. “paymasters”). He’s had so many feuds, I couldn’t possibly pick just one to cover here.

Salman Rushdie vs John Updike

In 2006, Updike reviewed Rushdie’s book Shalimar The Clown and asked the question: “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie… call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?”

In response, Rushdie is quoted as saying: “A name is just a name. ‘Why oh why?’ Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’.”

He piled on when talking about Updike’s own upcoming novel (Terrorist), calling it “beyond awful”, and suggesting that Updike “should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do”. He also referred to the majority of Updike’s work as “garbage”.

When Rushdie was asked to defend his pettiness, he answered the way we all wish we could sometimes: “I’m allowed to say it, because he was really rude about me.”

Salman Rushdie vs John le Carré

This fourteen-year feud began in 1997, with John le Carré having a big old whinge in the letters section of The Guardian. He complained that he had been unfairly attacked for alleged anti-Semitism.

Rushdie did not take kindly to this, and called him out on it:

“It would be easier to sympathise with [le Carré] if he had not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer. In 1989… le Carré wrote an article… in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.”

But Johnny did not back down without a fight!

“Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”

Shots fucking fired! Rushdie came back:

“I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be.”

And he added, later:

If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning to read… It’s true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. ‘Ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn’t dream of removing them… John le Carré appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I’m going back to work.”

Thank God we got receipts for all of this!

The two publicly made-up in 2011, with Rushdie calling le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “one of the great novels of postwar Britain”, and le Carré conceding that he, too, regretted the dispute. Something tells me that Rushdie may bury hatchets but he keeps maps of where he put them…

Salman Rushdie vs Peter Carey

In Rushdie’s eyes, Peter Carey made a grave mistake when he pulled out of attending a gala hosted by the Pen American Centre in 2015. Carey stated publicly that he objected to Pen awarding a freedom of expression and courage award to the editor-in-chief and essayist of Charlie Hebdo (the satirical French magazine attacked by extremists after that year publishing cartoons disparaging the prophet Mohammed).

Rushdie saw the award as part of the “battle against fanatical Islam”, and said that Carey – along with the five other writers who withdrew their acceptances and refused to attend the event – had “made themselves fellow travellers of that project [fanatical Islam]”, a “very, very bad move”.

He also called them “pussies”.

Carey maintains to this day that Pen has a “seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population”.

Chances are it’ll be another fourteen years before they make nice…

Salman Rushdie vs Roald Dahl

How anyone could feud with the author of The BFG is beyond me, but Kanye Rushdie managed it. In fairness, Roald Dahl was kind of a prick about the whole thing…

It all started when Dahl publicly denounced Rushdie in 1989, arguing that he basically deserved the fatwa that was placed upon him after publication of The Satanic Verses. Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist”, and said that his “sensationalism” was a “cheap” way of making it to the top of a bestseller list.

“[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise.”

It was big talk from Dahl, who was – incidentally – also once placed under police protection after death threats were made against him.

And yet, it would seem that the feud was (unusually, for Rushdie!) a bit one sided. Rushdie never responded publicly, and popular opinion seems to be that Dahl was simply jealous of Rushdie’s success, trying to bring him down a peg or two. This is somewhat substantiated by an (admittedly completely unverified) account I once heard of a journalist telling Dahl that he was off to interview Salman Rushdie for a column, and Dahl (allegedly) responded: “Oh, yes? Well, tell him he’s a shit!”

I don’t know if Rushdie ever got that message – he was probably too busy feuding with everybody else.

Bonus Literary Feuds!

I must also give an honourable mention to William Faulkner, who is quoted as saying that Ernest Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Hemingway responded by saying: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”. Hemingway might have won that round, but Vladimir Nabokov got the last word on Hemingway:

“As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

And there concludes my argument that authors are the pettiest, sassiest people on the planet. Are you convinced? Have you heard of any other great literary feuds? Tell me all about them in the comments (or share the gossip over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

If you’ve been reading the news, you’ll know that quoting mid-20th century dystopian novels is really “in” right now. Since we started the dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency, a lot of these older works have startling new relevance. I’ve got George Orwell’s 1984 covered (it’s one of my long-time favourite books), but I’m sick of chuckling along obliquely when people start talking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave New World is kind of like 1984’s homely cousin. There was some beef between the authors when Orwell accused Huxley of ripping off his plot (Orwell believed it was just a bit too similar to We by Yevgeny Zamyatin). Huxley always maintained that Brave New World was actually inspired by the utopian novels of H.G. Wells. He originally intended the book to be a satire, a “negative utopia” sending up all the novels that implied humanity could solve all of its social and economic issues with science. But then, as Huxley later wrote to a friend, the author “got caught up in the excitement of [his] own ideas”, and he ended up creating an entirely dystopian future where developments in reproductive technologies and psychological theories (sleep-learning, classic conditioning, etc.) have turned society on its head… and not necessarily in a good way. Brave New World was essentially the Black Mirror of the 1930s.

The foreword in this edition is pretty weird. Huxley wrote it himself, and his main message seems to be: “a writer should never feel remorse for the mistakes they made in their books and it’s no use trying to go back to fix them, but I could totally fix all the problems in Brave New World if I wanted to, and here’s exactly how I’d do it…”

Brave New World was published in 1931, and set 600 years in the future from then (so, the year 2540 to us, or the year 632 “After Ford” for the characters). Citizens of the Brave New World (called the “World State”) are engineered in artificial wombs, indoctrinated as children into predetermined castes, and kept calm with the constant use of a drug they call “soma”. Epsilons (the lower caste) are the giants, and the Alphas (highest caste) stand on their shoulders – without Epsilons, the “utopian” society would collapse. This is a metaphor for basically everything: capitalism, sexism, racism, and every other power structure you can think of.


The story kicks off with the beautiful Lenina (who works in a “hatchery”, breeding babies) and the dumpy Bernard (a psychologist who hates everything) taking a holiday together. They visit the natural world outside the confines of the World State (called the “Savage Reservation”), and there they meet Linda. She was once part of the World State, but got dumped in the reservation when she found herself naturally pregnant. Everyone in the World State is encouraged to fuck one another silly, but natural pregnancy and procreation is a huge no-no, so she’s basically shunned. Bernard can’t resist the opportunity to rock the boat a little back home, so he brings Linda and her son (John) back to the World State with him.

Lest you be mistaken, Huxley has A PointTM to make, and he goes in hard. He certainly doesn’t waffle on at all, and you can tell that every sentence is perfectly crafted to have maximum impact. In that regard, Brave New World reads more like a short story than a novel. This is a good thing in the sense that it makes the book a quick read. However, you do start to miss flowery descriptive moments and drawn-out passages, because they would give you a bit of time to process all of the information-dumps.

‘And that’, put in the Director sententiously, ‘that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.’

Around the time he started to write Brave New World, Huxley was really freaked out by the Great Depression (1931). There was mass unemployment and changes to the currency in Britain, leading to a lot of uncertainty. A trip to the United States didn’t help Huxley much; there, he saw youth culture, commercialised and promiscuous and narcissistic (he would have shit himself if he’d come forward in time and discovered Instagram). He also came across a copy of My Life and Work by Henry Ford (yes, of the Ford Motoring Company), which greatly influenced Huxley’s approach to the book. See, the whole book is based around the fear of losing individual identity and ceding free will. Ford is actually revered as the creator of the World State – not quite a deity, but close (so, instead of saying “oh my god”, people in the World State say “oh my Ford”). I wonder what you’d pay for that kind of product placement now… 😉

Anyway, back to the plot. Bernard returns to the World State with his “savages” in tow, and things start to fall apart. He parades John around like a performing monkey, which garners a lot of attention, but John really hates it. John has a passion for Shakespeare (considered smut in the World State) and quotes him endlessly (don’t worry, it’s mostly the well-known plays, so no prior knowledge of the Bard is required to follow what’s going on).

Linda reveals that John’s father is actually one of the bigwigs in the World State government, leading to a huge fall-out. Around the same time, Lenina hits on John, but he goes full fuck-boy and attacks her, calling her a slut. There are a lot of complex sub-plots that weave in and out here, but basically it all ends up with John exiling himself. He goes off to live in an abandoned lighthouse, alone on the fringes of the World State. He overreacts somewhat to what he sees as the excesses and indulgences of that society, and starts whipping himself like that monk from The Da Vinci Code. Crowds gather to watch him, fascinated by “the self-flagellating savage”, until one day he thinks he sees Lenina in the crowd and he goes completely nuts. The story ends with a really haunting depiction of his suicide, alone in the lighthouse.

This review might sound pretty PG, but the American Library Association actually ranks Brave New World on their list of the most challenged books of all time (don’t forget, Banned Books Week is coming up!). It has been censored, banned, and/or challenged dozens of times all around the world. The further I get into the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, the more I realise that the most-often banned books are always the ones that offer the best insights into our world.

Huxley later wrote two follow-ups: an essay (“Brave New World Revisited” in 1958), and his final novel (“Island” in 1962). I’m not sure I’ll bother seeking those out, but I’m glad I read Brave New World. By way of a recommendation, this one is probably best suited to sociology students, and/or naïve teenagers who need a bit of a wake-up call. It’s definitely less depressing than 1984, if that’s your concern – they still have sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll in the World State, after all 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Brave New World:

  • “The mass baby electrocution scene was epic. ZAP! That’s what you get for looking at books!” – John Sapinski
  • “Progressive claptrap” – John Harrington
  • “This is the business plan of the Progressive Party. It is the Mein Kampf of the Democrat. I commend it. It is always good to know what the train that is about to hit you looks like. Gives you a chance to dodge.” – Athelstan
  • “almost sickening book—strange—baby torture, toddler sex—just weird” – Gloria M.


Ridiculous (Real!) Reasons That Your Favourite Books Have Been Banned

At the end of this month, we’ll be celebrating Banned Books Week (23-29 September), an annual event promoting free and open access to literature. According to the official website, over 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982 (a “challenge” being an attempt to ban or restrict materials, brought by an individual or group, on the basis of content). The idea of a whole week dedicated to unorthodox and unpopular literature originated in the U.S. through the American Library Association, but it has gathered steam and spread worldwide. Banned Books Week draws international attention to the very real dangers posed by censorship – be it at the hands of schools, states, or federal governments.

Personally, I love banned books. In fact, it would seem that the majority of the books on The List have been banned, challenged, or censored at some point in history, somewhere in the world. At least 20 of them appear in the American Library Association’s top 100 lists of banned books over the past two decades. What I find most disturbing is the number of books that have been challenged because they contain diverse content; of the top ten most frequently challenged books in 2015, for instance, nine of them (quick maths: that’s 90%) featured or were written by people of colour, LGBTI people, and/or people with disabilities. Why are we so quick to challenge inclusive content from groups that are already marginalised in so many other respects?

Well, my favourite way to confront things that I don’t like is to laugh at them (of course!). So, let’s all have a chuckle at some of the most ridiculous (real!) reasons that books have been banned, challenged, or censored.

Ridiculous Real Reasons That Books Have Been Banned - Keeping Up With The Penguins


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Banned in Concord, Massachusetts (1885)
Reason Given: It is “trash and suitable only for the slums”

It was an auspicious start to a long and illustrious lifetime of bans and challenges for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Right up to the present day, it has been challenged repeatedly on the groups of racial insensitivity, perpetuation of racism, use of racial stereotypes, and coarse language. The fact that it accurately reflects the treatment and lived experiences of people of colour in 19th century America seems to have no bearing.

The Call of the Wild – Jack London

Burned in Nazi Germany (1920s-1930s)
Reason Given: It is “too radical”

A nice story about a man going for a walk with his dog (ha!) is clearly of great concern, and not only to the Nazis. The Call Of The Wild was also banned in Italy and Yugoslavia at different points, and has been challenged more recently in the U.S. for “age-inappropriateness” and concern about the author’s “pro-Socialist” views.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Censored in Irvine, California (1992)
Reason Given: Obscene language (“hell”, “damn”)

The irony here is mind-boggling! Surely no one ruling on these challenges has actually read the Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian science-fiction novel about a future world where books are illegal. A (somewhat oblivious) Californian school mandated the use of an expurgated version of the text in their classrooms, with all the “bad” words blacked out. Bradbury’s work has also been challenged and banned in other districts, usually citing its profanity, anti-government advocacy, opposition to religious belief, and – best of all – “questionable themes” (could they be any more vague?).

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Banned in Kern County, California (1939)
Reason Given: “Portrays Kern County, California in a negative light”

That’s right: Kern County is not only the setting of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but it was also the first place to ban it. The book was similarly banned in Ireland in the 1950s, and Turkish booksellers were charged for “spreading propaganda” when they sold the book in the 1970s. Grounds for other subsequent challenges include its profanity (“goddamn”), and sexual references.

Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman

Challenged in New York, New York (1882)
Reason Given: It’s “filthy”

A wonderful little organisation called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (sadly now disbanded) was not a huge fan of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. They pressured publisher James Osgood to cease distributing the work altogether, arguing that it violated “the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature”. When that failed (good on ya, Osgood!), the upstanding booksellers of New York took it upon themselves to advise their customers not to purchase the “filthy” book. I must say, if I received such a warning, I’d probably buy two copies.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Banned in Lindale, Texas (1996)
Reason Given: It “conflicted with community values”

Ah, that old chestnut! Which community values were contradicted exactly remains unclear, but Moby Dick definitely contradicted them, according to a school district in Lindale. Other books banned by the same school under that ruling include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and – the darling of Banned Books Week, mentioned above – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Check out my full review of the community-value-conflicting American classic here.

Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

Challenged (2015)
Reason Given: It is “poorly written”, and there are “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”

I shouldn’t play favourites, but as far as I’m concerned this is the best ridiculous reason for a book to be challenged, ever! I can understand perhaps thinking that the content of Fifty Shades of Grey is a little “adult” for a very young audience, but what a way to articulate that concern! The Malaysian government did a little better: they banned the entire trilogy that same year, for its “sadistic” material and its “threat to morality”.

*Note: the location of this particular challenge has not been made public. The wonderful team at the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom were kind enough to tell me why: librarians and other professionals who wish to seek support from their office, but fear reprimands or punishment at work for reporting instances of censorship, are welcome to submit their concerns confidentially. However, they also confirmed for me that this was, in fact, a legitimate challenge reported to their office in 2015.

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Challenged in North Carolina (1981)
Reason Given: It is “demoralising, in that it implies that a man is little more than an animal”

This reason for challenging Lord of the Flies is lifted directly from its very premise. Any kid writing a book report can tell you that Golding’s whole point was that man is not that different from the animals. Such logic isn’t stopping the censorship brigade, though! They’ve also challenged this book for its obscene language, violence, and – I swear, I’m not making this up – animal cruelty.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Banned in Hunan, China (1931)
Reason Given: It would be “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level”

Yep: anthropomorphised animals really freak out the Chinese government. They felt that Lewis Carroll’s charming children’s fantasy novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was an insult to humans, and would teach children “disastrous” things (i.e., that humans and animals are “on the same level”). Can you imagine?

The U.S. got on board the banning train in the ’60s, albeit for different reasons: they believed the mushroom and hookah imagery would lure kids into the drug culture. Then, in the ’90s, New Hampshire banned the book (again!) for promoting “sexual fantasies and masturbation”. ??? Even I don’t know how they got there… Seriously, read my full review here and see if you can figure it out.

All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

Challenged in Dallas, Texas (1974)
Reason Given: Depicting a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”

God knows, we can’t have young adults exposed to a depressing view of life in literature! Especially not when it reflects immoral situations! How else will they learn that the real world is all sunshine and rainbows, and everyone does the right thing always?! We can hardly blame the good people of Dallas, Texas for challenging All The King’s Men, really.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Removed from classrooms in Miller, Missouri (1980)
Reason Given: “It makes promiscuous sex look like fun”

Words fail me. See my review here.

Honourable mentions must also go to: The Holy Bible (challenged for its “religious viewpoint”), The Witches by Roald Dahl (for “encouraging disobedience”), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (for “content dealing with menstrual cycles and feminine hygiene”, heaven forbid) and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (inexplicably challenged for “obscene language” only, when half the book is written in a nonsense language invented by the author and depicts some of the most graphic sexual violence and state-perpetrated violence that I have ever read – check out my full review for more details).

So, now that we’ve all had a good laugh, let’s get back to Banned Books Week. The battle against censorship is never won. Take some time out this month to read books that people tell you you “shouldn’t”. Soak up some dangerous ideas. Support an author who has been challenged or banned (buy their book, go to their talk, request their work at your local library). None of us have to like everything, but we should do everything we can to make sure that no one impinges on our right to read anything.

Have you come across a ridiculous reason that a book has been banned? What will you be reading to celebrate Banned Books Week? Let me know in the comments (or give it a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


Paper Towns – John Green

John Green is one of only three authors to have more than one book on The List. This week, I’m tackling the first of them: Paper Towns. It debuted at #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2008, it won the Edgar Award in 2009 for Best Young Adult Novel, and just about every YA-reader I know has a major stiffy for Green. So, I figured it was worth a look.

Paper Towns is your standard coming-of-age story. There’s a prologue positioning the two central characters as childhood friends. The nerdy, underappreciated boy-next-door (Quentin “Q” Jacobsen) “loves” Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for years. She is (surprise, surprise) beautiful, mysterious, and edgy.

Margo goes missing, and Quentin goes looking for her, following her trail of clues. You have to suspend your disbelief for a minute here. I mean, I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught. Still, that’s what Green chose for a plot, and I’m hardly in a position to argue with him.

There were some surprisingly clever and funny bits. I laughed out loud at the story of local figure Dr Jefferson Jefferson, who is actually not a doctor of any kind – he’s just a powerful, wealthy man who petitioned the courts to change his first name to “Dr”. That’s funny, right?! So I keep reading along, chuckling away… until we hit the first speed-bump of self-indulgent teenage wankery. Quentin opines:

“It struck me as somewhat unfair that an asshole like Jason Worthington would get to have sex with both Margo and Becca, when perfectly likeable individuals such as myself don’t get to have sex with either of them – or anyone else for that matter.”

Sound the alarm, guys: our narrator is definitely a Nice GuyTM.

His (brief) moment of redemption doesn’t come until about two-thirds of the way through the novel (by which point I’d already written him off). He realises that Margo isn’t just a vessel for all of his dreams and desires – she’s an actual person, would you believe it? And he’s not subtle about it, either. He really thwacks you over the head with this life-changing realisation.

“Margo was not a miracle. She was not adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”

I was just about to score one for John Green – I was pleasantly surprised, I honestly didn’t think he had it in him – but then it all went to shit. And by that, I mean that his selfish teenage arsehole characters went back to acting like selfish teenage arseholes. Quentin skips his high-school graduation (and somehow convinces his friends to do the same), despite the fact that he is an only child and his parents are so excited and proud of him that they bought him a car. He uses that very car to drive across the country chasing after the girl, risking life and limb, with nary a thought to his heartbroken parents… only to find that she’s absolutely fine and, well, that’s kind of the end.

It’s not all terrible, though. I wasn’t a huge fan of the characters or the plot, but the “paper towns” trivia was pretty fun and it made a nice little backdrop for the story. If you’re wondering: the idea of a “paper town” is actually an old cartography trick. Basically, if you’re designing a map (back in the days before Google had street view), you sneakily add in an extra fake town in a random spot. It was an early form of copyright protection. If a cartographer saw their secret fake “paper town” on another map, they could be fairly certain that the designer had copied their design without permission. Clever, eh? Green confirms in his author note that the paper town he references in the book, Agloe, is actually real:

“Agloe began as a paper town, created to protect against copyright infringement. But then people with these old Esso maps kept looking for it, and so someone built a store, making Agloe real.”

But aside from the fun trivia (and the lols in the beginning), I didn’t find all that much to love about Paper Towns. I think Green tried to play with “dark” themes too much. He was a bit heavy handed with the death stuff (that’s him “having his cake”), but then he wraps it up very neatly in an alarmingly benign ending (and that’s him “having it too”)., The monologuing in the closing chapters was extremely tedious; it felt like very lazy storytelling. I had to keep reminding myself that I’m a bit older than the target market; maybe today’s young adults like having everything teased out in dialogue, to feel like the story has a resolution?

Bonus fun fact: Paper Towns was apparently, like all good books, banned from a U.S. school in 2014 because a local parent “disapproved of the book’s sexual content”. A few high-school boys occasionally whined about being virgins, which is enough to make anyone clutch their pearls, I’m sure. The National Coalition Against Censorship had it reinstated shortly thereafter.

My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. Paper Towns is great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Paper Towns:

  • “Purchased for my adult son who is a
    Librarian to give to his 13 year old son.” – granny70
  • “This book is complete trash. I would rather read a book about a boy peeling an orange. The characters were flat and the book was just boring in general. Q was a nerdy teen and Margo was a spoiled brat, who cares. This book was a waste of time I could have spent reading The Hunger Games.” – Isabela Underdahl


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