Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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9 Great Books That Haven’t Been Made Into Movies… Yet!

The book-to-film adaptation is pretty much standard for every best-seller nowadays. Sometimes, books are picked up by film production companies before they’re even released, because the buzz around them is so big. Film producers are pretty non-discriminatory: they’ll take on anything they think might be a money-maker. Heck, even the self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes was given the treatment and became the immortal film Mean Girls (it is a vital and very important movie, don’t @ me). A lot of readers resent this constant churn, believing that movie-makers ruin their favourite stories in translation, but even the most cynical booklover can’t deny that movies get people more interested in the books that inspired them. The Lord Of The Rings movies triggered a massive surge in sales for the fantasy series, with over 25 million copies flying off the shelves worldwide after their release. All of this begs the question: why are there still a handful of good books that haven’t been made into movies… yet?

9 Great Books That Haven't Been Made Into Movies... Yet - Text Overlaid on Image of Unspooled Film - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I covered this off in my review of the hippie classic, but just in case you missed it: The Alchemist, a fable about chasing your dreams and self-belief, has never been made into a movie. There have been attempts, of course. Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but nothing really came of that. Then Harvey Weinstein took them on, but he didn’t seem to be in any rush, because it took until 2015 for him to secure a director and a lead actor and then… well, Weinstein got what was coming to him. It’s looking unlikely that The Alchemist will be coming to cinemas any time soon.

Why hasn’t The Alchemist been made into a movie yet?

The delay seems to be mostly attributable to Coelho’s own reluctance to sell the rights in the first place. He has said that he believes “a book has a life of its own inside the reader’s mind”, and that movie adaptations rarely live up to them; basically, he’s worried that filmmakers will butcher his life’s work, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that could well be the case. Weinstein got the closest of anyone so far, but I don’t think I need to explain to you why that venture isn’t going to work out. I guess we’ll all just have to wait for another film mogul to convince Coelho that it’s worth doing right (and probably shove even bigger stacks of money his way). IMDB has a page suggesting the film is “in development”, but that means sweet fuck-all…

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d think that this one would be a walk-up start, because all the elements are there! Donna Tartt’s The Secret History tells the story of a cabal of Classics students (yes, even pretentious nerds can have cults) at an Ivy League university who try to get away with murdering one of their own. It’s got mystery! It’s got suspense! It’s got intrigue! And given that Tartt’s equally popular book, The Goldfinch, is set to be released as a film very soon, it seems strange that this one hasn’t been picked up.

Why hasn’t The Secret History been made into a movie yet?

It’s not for lack of trying! Alan J Paukla was the first to realise its potential; he picked it up, and roped in Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write the screenplay. Sadly, Paukla was killed in a car accident in 1998, and the project died with him. Gwenyth Paltrow later showed some interest, and picked up the rights with her brother. They agreed to develop the film with Miramax, but then, again sadly, their father passed away and they were understandably distracted. Now the rights have reverted back to the author, and she has refused to sell them on again as yet; perhaps she suspects that the project is cursed and wants to avoid any more tragedies…

One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

It’s been well over fifty years since One Hundred Years Of Solitude was published, and yet there have never been any real attempts (that we know of) to turn it into a movie. The book checks a bunch of boxes: an idyllic setting (a town in beautiful Central America), social currency (with its critique of capitalism and everything), a colourful family (the Buendias, seven generations of them!), and classic magical realism (a la Amelie or Chocolat). So, where the heck is our movie?

Why hasn’t One Hundred Years Of Solitude been made into a movie yet?

Well, if I’m being honest, it’s largely because Márquez was a real stick in the mud. He famously refused to sell the rights to his beautiful book, knocking back all comers, regardless of what they offered him. Giuseppe Tornatore got the closest, but Márquez literally told him that he would only sell the rights if the director agreed to “film the entire book, but only release one chapter – two minutes long – each year for a hundred years”. That would be an artistic triumph, to be sure, but probably not the most practical project to get off the ground. Plus, the book is rumoured to be “unfilmable”, with a bunch of characters all sharing the same name, and tricky bits that would probably require massive amounts of hallucinogens to properly envisage, so… maybe the producers didn’t try that hard to get Márquez’s blessing. Netflix announced last month that they’ve purchased the rights (now that Márquez isn’t around to give them a hard time), and his sons will serve as executive producers. So, maybe soon…?

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, pulling together a script (and a film) about a woman who lives her life over and over again, dozens of times, with those lives taking her all around Europe over the course of the 20th century, probably wouldn’t be easy… but heck, if Kate Atkinson can make it work as a book (and I think she did!), it can be done. Life After Life is high-concept, but no more so than other time travel and speculative fiction films, so what’s the hold-up?

Why hasn’t Life After Life been made into a movie yet?

Beats me! Lionsgate announced in 2014 that they had acquired the rights to an adaptation, and even went as far as to secure Semi Chellas (of Mad Men) and Esta Spalding (of The Bridge) as screenwriters. They’re the same production company responsible for Twilight and The Hunger Games, so we know they can do it! But they’ve been alarmingly quiet about the project since then; even Kate Atkinson’s website doesn’t say any more than that. I’ll be keeping an eye on the IMDB page, but no news doesn’t seem like good news…

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

C’mon, we all remember this one! Most of us read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but I didn’t – I covered it last year in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It was the OG young adult novel, before young adult was even a thing, and it’s especially resonant now with our increased awareness around mental health issues in teenagers. Plus, it’s set in New York, an iconic visual setting that’s incredibly popular with filmmakers.

Why hasn’t The Catcher In The Rye been made into a movie yet?

J.D. Salinger famously swore, up and down, no two ways about it, that The Catcher In The Rye would never be made into a film. He thought that the first-person narration would sound “cheesy” if it were ever to be adapted. Even since his passing back in 2010, his estate has stayed firm in adhering to his wishes; he went so far as to write them into his will. All of Hollywood’s best and brightest have tried to wear them down: John Cusack once said he deeply regretted never having the opportunity to play Holden Caulfield, Marlon Brando wanted to have a go at getting up on screen, as did Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire, and even Leonardo DiCaprio. But Salinger was so firm in his insistence that his agents didn’t even bother showing him offers from the heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg. So, don’t hold your breath, people!

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

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We’ve had more than ample time to get this project off the ground: Don Quixote was first published in 1605, before movies were even in the realm of imagination (so de Cervantes could hardly object to the adaptation of his work). It’s a hilarious story of misadventure and mishap, there are clearly no copyright issues or existing contracts to get in the way, and historical movies of that time period were all the rage for a time… and yet, no dice!

Why hasn’t Don Quixote been made into a movie yet?

Pick your poison. It’s too long, they say: the epic novel runs to well over 1,000 pages and follows dozens of different storylines along the way. Plus, it’s cursed! Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, tried to film his version (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), but a series of calamities shut down production indefinitely, and all of his attempts to revive it so far have been unsuccessful. There have long been rumours of Disney versions coming – one animated, one live-action – but they’ve never materialised, and no one quite knows why. In fact, Don Quixote is so notoriously unfilmable that Gilliam’s failure became the subject of a documentary that did actually get released, Lost In La Mancha – that might be as close as we ever get!

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might be a little premature to include All The Light We Cannot See on this list, seeing as it was only released a few years ago, in 2014. The entwined stories of a young blind girl in Occupied France and a German boy plucked from an orphanage to join the Nazis as a radio technician captivated the world, and Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That’s why I included it my List of books to read for this project, and I reviewed it in full here. Still, in the age of instant gratification, five years seems an awfully long wait for a film that would be so hotly-anticipated… don’t you think?

Why hasn’t All The Light We Cannot See been made into a movie yet?

Who bloody knows? The rights were instantly acquired by 20th Century Fox upon release, so all signs looked good. Then there was a Netflix announcement last month about a mini-series a la Big Little Lies on HBO. But there’s been no news since then – as far as we know, there’s no director, producers, or actors on board. So, I guess it’s a case of hurry up and wait!

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another WWII-era novel screaming out for a film adaptation: this time, from Nobel Prize-winning Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro. His story focuses on retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono, who is forced to confront the role he played in the war and its impact on his reputation as he struggles to secure happy marriages for his daughters. An Artist Of The Floating World is a little nutty in the timeline (I’ll tell you more about it in my review coming soon), but there’s no flashy magical realism or any of the other logistical problems that could gum up the works in producing a film. Plus, two of Ishiguro’s other books – The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go – have been adapted by Hollywood, so clearly he doesn’t object to the idea.

Why hasn’t An Artist Of The Floating World been made into a movie yet?

I have searched high or low, all over the internet, and I cannot find a single of the film rights even being sought, let alone acquired or acted on. In fact, aside from a few bloggers and commentators expressing concern that a future film adaptation might white-wash the story (as, unfortunately, has happened with so many other Asian books and films), no one seems to be talking about this potentially award-winning film at all. Maybe I should look into it myself, eh? 😉

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, so, technically this dystopian classic has been made into two for-TV movies, and there have been a bunch of other types of adaptations as well, but I’ve decided they don’t count. I want to see Brave New World, with all its sex and drugs and open rebellion against the World State, in full technicolour on a huge screen with surround sound, please! This story couldn’t be more topical, with the masses separated into castes and numbed to their outrage with government provision of various sedatives, so the world is well and truly primed for this movie done properly. (I reviewed the book in full here, by the way, if that description has you wanting more!)

Why hasn’t Brave New World been made into a movie yet?

Because everyone’s too hell-bent on putting it on TV again! The production companies have signed on Spielberg, for pity’s sake, and they’ve got one heck of a budget, but it looks like the next version is going to be filmed as a miniseries to air on the Syfy channel, instead of a big-screen blockbuster. Boo, I say! Leonardo DiCaprio has made noise about adapting Brave New World to film before, though, so I’m hoping he’ll keep fighting the good fight, especially if the miniseries does well and reignites some interest…


Writing up this list might have been a bit silly on my part, because now I’m desperate to see all of these films and none of them exist yet! Wahhhh! What book do you think deserves a big-screen adaptation? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

I think I’ve seen The Alchemist under the arm of just about every hippie I’ve ever met… and I’ve never once asked any of them about it, for fear that it would “change my life” or “give me a new perspective” or “open my mind to spirituality” or some shit. Maybe that makes me a cynic, but so be it! The point is that, like most of the books on The List, I knew very little about The Alchemist going in, but in service of my aim to Keep Up With The Penguins, I went in regardless.

The cover of this edition promises “a fable about following your dreams”, and I suppose it delivered, technically. Like any fable, it wasn’t a tough read, and I burned through it in just a few hours (the fastest I’ve finished any book for this project, as I recall). The Alchemist reads like a fairytale, with very simple and straightforward language; I wondered if it read the same way in the original Portuguese, but I guess I’ll never know.

Oh, yeah, a bit of background: Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author, and The Alchemist was originally written in Portuguese (“O Alquimista”). This version was translated into English by Alan R. Clarke, and it has been translated into some 70 other languages as of 2016.


Anyway, The Alchemist is an allegorical novel. It starts with an Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, having recurring dreams about finding treasure buried under the Egyptian pyramids (haven’t we all?). He stumbles across a Romani fortune-teller, who confirms his suspicion that the dream is prophetic – and believe you me, in my head I’m screaming “BUDDY, THIS IS NOT A GOOD PLAN!”, but he doesn’t hear me. Then he sits down to have a chat with a King disguised as a pauper, who tells him:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”

(So, The Secret totally ripped him off, but that’s not my business.)

Anyway, the rest of the book is pretty much Coelho reinforcing that rather trite philosophy, over and over again. Santiago’s journey to Egypt is a total shit-fight. He gets robbed, and has to work in a jewellery store for a year to make his money back. Then he makes his way through the desert, encountering mortal peril every step of the way and buddying up with a bloke who really wants to become an alchemist (don’t get excited, he’s not the titular character). They find an oasis, and there Santiago falls in love with a girl (conveniently forgetting all about the merchant’s daughter who he also “loved” back in Spain). He leaves her hanging to travel the rest of the way through the desert, and en route he meats The Actual Alchemist(TM), who teaches him to “listen to his heart” (very insight, much wise).

The two of them come within a bee’s dick of becoming collateral damage in a tribal war, and when Santiago finally makes it to the bloody pyramids, he gets the living shit beat out of him by a local gang. Then – awesome timing! – he has another “prophetic”  dream that tells him the stinking treasure is actually buried under a tree in his hometown. I swore, loudly, when I read that part.


I know, I know: it’s a beautiful story about overcoming obstacles and faith and persistence and all of that… but let’s be real, sometimes you’re better off just calling it a day and heading back to your sheep and the merchant’s daughter. Maybe that means you miss out on the treasure, but you get beaten and robbed and taken prisoner far less frequently.

Coelho wrote the book almost as quickly as I read it; it took him just two weeks, in 1987. He later explained that he was able to spew it out so quickly because the book was “already written in [his] soul”. And that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Coelho.

Maybe there’s something in his whole faith and persistence shtick, because The Alchemist’s success came from pretty humble beginnings. It was not an instant best-seller, by any stretch. Coelho first sold it to a small publishing house, who gave it a small print run in Brazil, but they ended up handing him back the rights because they figured they’d backed the wrong horse.

via GIPHY

But Coelho kept the hustle alive: he self-published, and fought the good fight, until finally – finally – his book took off in France, and became an “unexpected” best-seller in the mid ’90s. It’s a great testament to the power of word-of-mouth marketing, because this was pre-Facebook and (until he hit the big time) Coelho had no budget for any other publicity.

Given The Alchemist’s enduring (eventual) popularity, you might be surprised to learn it’s not yet been adapted for the big screen. Coelho was reluctant to sell the rights, believing that “a book has life of its own inside the reader’s mind” (or some hippie shit like that), and film adaptations rarely live up to the book. But, over time, he “opened his mind” to the possibility (and, I’d imagine, the piles of money offered that got bigger and bigger – even hippies can’t resist the lure of fat stacks). Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but the project stalled for several years. Then, in 2008, Harvey Weinstein announced that he had bought the rights and would produce the film himself. By 2015, he’d secured a director, and a lead actor, but then… well, yeah. Weinstein had some other shit going on. He ain’t going to be producing anything for a while. So, Coelho keeps the money, and he doesn’t have to see his magnum opus butchered on the big screen by a notorious sexual predator. Everyone’s a winner!I can see why hippies love The Alchemist. I was right in my suspicion: there’s a lot of spirituality and listening to your heart and all that guff. I’m definitely too cynical for this book – or maybe the book is too earnest, whichever you prefer. As the New York Times said, it’s more self-help than literature. I’d describe it as The Secret meets The Divine Comedy. The main tick in its column is that it’s an all-ages read, as far as I can tell, so if you’re looking to cheer up a stressed-out kid this would be a good one to read out loud to them. If you’re reading it alone… well, at least it’ll be over quickly. And maybe you’re not dead inside like me, so you might even enjoy it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Alchemist:

  • “Really was expecting something life altering. My dog chewed up the book when I was 18 pages in and I should have let her finish….” – jane
  • “Too much words like all his books!” – george raven
  • “Meh. I’m going to finish it, but only because they said It couldn’t be done.” – Andy Robertson
  • “Follow Your Dreams. That’s it. Save your money for your dreams – nothing wrong with this book but no more uplifting than the Facebook posts your friends send for free.” – West Coast Dreamer
  • “Apparently, if you are a man, the world will arrange itself to make sure you are happy. If you are a woman, your job is to sit yourself at home and wait for your main to come back and fulfil you, no matter how long that takes, because that’s your job. You don’t get your own destiny, you get to deal with his….” – Alison
  • “My personal legend is complete and the sun is setting on the mountains to the north. My treasure is having been able to complete this stupid book and put it away forever.” – Laura WG
  • “What a sappy story. If you want to drink syrup, by all means read this book.” – Dixie Dome
  • “A novel for stoners. What a regrettable purchase.” – NJ

What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 for 2019?

It’s that time of year again! Members of the Dymocks Booklovers club (over 11,000 of them!) have cast their votes, and the Australian bookseller chain has announced the winners: their Top 101 books for 2019. I really appreciate that Dymocks goes to the effort of asking their loyal customers what they think (instead of just relying on the figures of the current best selling books in Australia), and I love looking through this list each year and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted among my fellow booklovers. As always, there are a bunch of old favourites, plenty of new entries, and many from my own bookshelves. Here’s what I reckon about the Dymocks 101 for 2019…

Dymocks Top 101 Books 2019 - Text in Speech Bubble Overlaid on Image of Bookstore Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

#1 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

BAM! I knew this book was popular – I’ve seen it all over #bookstagram for months – but I had no idea it was THAT popular! Either I underestimated its power, or Gail Honeyman has secret powers to mobilise a formidable army of loyal Australian readers to vote Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine into the top spot. I recently picked up this one in a fit of (probably only perceived) peer pressure; I feel like I’m the only booklover left who hasn’t read it! It sounds a lot like a female-led The Rosie Project, so I’m cautiously curious.

#2 Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford

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And BAM – another surprise! Clementine Ford is a very divisive figure in Australia, in feminism and in the media more broadly. Fight Like A Girl is her treatise, a call to arms, for her unapologetically angry, at times confronting, at times challenging, always impressive, sociopolitical philosophy. If you’d asked me before the Dymocks Top 101 list was released, I would have said there was no way such a controversial book – non-fiction and female-authored, come to that – would crack the top twenty… but here we are! (Boys Will Be Boys, Ford’s follow-up to Fight Like A Girl, also made the list, coming in at #12.)

#3 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, now we’re back on more predictable ground: All The Light We Cannot See was #2 in the Dymocks list last year, so it’s roughly maintained its spot. I’d imagine we’ll see it hanging around in the Top 101 for a while yet. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction novel (and they’re so hot right now!) that follows the lives of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths cross over the course of the conflict. Read my full review here.

#4 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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Two remarkably similar (in premise, if not tone) historical WWII fiction novels, with female child protagonists, back-to-back in the Dymocks 101: clearly, there’s a deep interest in these kinds of stories, and they have a loyal fan base! The Book Thief was published back in 2005, and it’s featured in the list since then. It was #1 in 2017, the year that I put my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list together (which is how I found myself picking it up to begin with). Clearly, it’s got some serious staying power! This is another one I’m sure we’ll be seeing in the Top 101 for many years yet… Read my full review here.

#6 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic tale of racism and loyalty in the American South, has nudged up a few spots this year (from #10 back in 2018). I think it might make its way even higher over the next couple of years, as the Trump presidency plays itself out and the world tries to claw its way back. This remains a canonical text for our understandings of how the personal is political (and, indeed, how the political is personal). It’s not without its flaws of course, but I loved it. Read my full review here.

#7 Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Again, no surprises here: Pride And Prejudice is right where we left it last year, in the #7 spot of the Dymocks Top 101. It is popularly considered the most loved of Austen’s works, and it’s probably the best known (if not the best flat-out) English-language novel of the 19th century. I’d be gob-smacked if it dropped out of the top ten any time soon! In fact, I challenge you to find any list of “100 best books” that doesn’t include this classic.

#9 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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It’s taken a while, but The Handmaid’s Tale is finally getting the worldwide recognition and adulation it deserves – buoyed no doubt by the incredibly popular television series, and the countless hours and pages of commentary it spawned. Like all good dystopian fiction, Atwood’s Republic of Gilead has ever-startling resonance for our real-world struggles with gender, class, and exploitation.

#10 The Dry by Jane Harper

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Isn’t it great to see so many Australian women writers making good this year? The Dry is actually the second of Harper’s novels to make the Dymocks Top 101 Books this year (her more recent offering, The Lost Man, came in at #8). I’m yet to read any of her books, but The Dry is going to be my first – it’s calling me from my to-be-read shelf! As I understand from the blurb, it’s a crime drama set in the hometown of a fictional AFP investigator, Aaron Falk, where he reluctantly investigates the murder of a local family while simultaneously confronting the community that cruelly rejected him decades prior.

#15 Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Speaking of Australian women writers, here’s another! Hannah Kent has become somewhat of a darling of Australian literature the last few years, and this is perhaps the best-loved of the books she’s written so far. Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was the last woman put to death in Iceland; she was convicted of murdering two men, including her employer, and this is Kent’s reimagining of her final days. Stay tuned for my review (and also for the film adaptation, which will reportedly star Jennifer Lawrence in the lead!).

#18 Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Good thing I didn’t turn “Australian women writers in the Dymocks 101” into a drinking game, because we’d be out of wine by now! Liane Moriarty is an incredible home-grown commercial fiction success story. She was growing in popularity in her own right, but the HBO adaptation of her sixth book, Big Little Lies, has shot her into the stratosphere of literary stardom. I’ve not yet read this one, but I did read her previous novel, The Husband’s Secret (review coming soon!), and it came in on this same list at #78. Her most recent release, Nine Perfect Strangers, came in a bit below this one at #24, but I expect we’ll see it climb higher over the next year or two.

#25 The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

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If you’ll permit me to get a little sappy-slash-political for a minute: I think it’s really wonderful that, in this era of fear-mongering and misinformation, Australian booklovers are still supporting a refugee memoir. Forget what you’ve been told about “boat people” or “illegals” – Anh Do turns all the stereotypes on their head in The Happiest Refugee. After I read it, I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s not sure where they fall on the issue of refugees coming to our country. It’s vital that we continue to share and celebrate these stories, not just because they’re amazing but also to counterbalance the powerful forces that would see us all divided (in their own interest, of course).

#27 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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Once Bill Gates recommends your book, chances are it’s going to be selling like hot-cakes for a while. And that’s exactly what’s happened to Graeme Simsion with The Rosie Project. He’s managed to parlay his success with this comic novel about the eccentric scientist Don Tillman’s search for love into an entire trilogy, following it up with The Rosie Effect and, just this year, The Rosie Result. I couldn’t help but take issue with some of Simsion’s (mis)representations of life on the autism spectrum, but I can’t deny that this is a wonderful light-hearted read – one to reach for when you need a reminder that the whole world isn’t shit. Also, Graeme Simsion actually re-tweeted my quote of a particularly harsh review, so he’s clearly a good sport! Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

#29 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On its face, A Little Life doesn’t have much going for it. It’s a loooooong book, for one – my edition runs some 720 pages! Its author, Hanya Yanaghiara, is a woman of colour, a group too-often underrepresented in lists of best books. And holy heck, it is not an easy read! If you decide to give this one a go, be prepared for long and detailed descriptions of intense and horrific childhood trauma, as well as addiction, relationship breakdown, and all other manner of dark shit. The fact that A Little Life ranked so highly in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2019 is nothing short of a miracle, as far as I’m concerned. It just goes to show: Australian booklovers really are the bravest and the strongest of them all!

#32 The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart - Holly Ringland - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, I wasn’t entirely sold on The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart when I first encountered it. The cover art is, as you can see, incredibly beautiful… but a book about flowers? Pass! And then I heard an interview with Holly Ringland. I couldn’t help myself, she had me! Hook, line, and sinker! In this wonderful book, an intense family tragedy sees a young girl, Alice, move in with her estranged grandmother on a native flower farm. Her story spans two decades and says much about the traumas we fear to speak out loud, and the secrets that grow around them. (Oh, and it’s another Australian woman writer – everybody drink!)

#33 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t think the importance of this book – and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, which came in at #77 – can be overstated. Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, delightful and fun and flashy, but it’s also an incredible case study in the impact of good, honest representation. The film adaptation was hugely popular, and I think it was Sandra Oh who said that she cried as she watched it because finally – finally! – there was a film full of people who looked like her. The Asian characters aren’t jokes or side-kicks, but the stars of the show. So, heck yes for Crazy Rich Asians making the Dymocks 101, and here’s hoping it’s a sign of more great #ownvoices success stories to come!

#45 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think my thoughts on this inclusion in the Dymocks 101 list can be almost entirely summed up in a single word: ugh. I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I think The Great Gatsby stinks. It’s just so boring and hackneyed! A moody white guy discovers that it’s fun to party with pretty girls, then his rich friend dies and no one comes to the funeral. Like… so what? And yet, it appears on this list year after year (though, I do note happily that it’s down a bit from its rank of #27 in 2018). I just don’t understand its enduring appeal! Trust me, read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes instead – it’s a much more fun and interesting take on the Jazz Age in American. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

#46 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Back to the good stuff: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is now one of my favourite all-time books, having read it back in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It’s amazing, but unsurprising, that Charlotte’s masterful rendering of the inner consciousness of a young, scared girl is still so popular centuries later. Here’s another controversial opinion for you: even though she was kind of the bitchy sister, in my estimation Charlotte was the best of the Brontës. (You can fight me on that in the comments if you like!) Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

#47 Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As soon as I saw this book, and that incredible cover art, I just knew it would be wonderful. Normal People kind of exploded after it was placed on the long-list for the 2018 Booker Prize, and I’m still surprised it didn’t make it any further in the process, given its immense popularity and numerous literary commendations. Ostensibly, it’s a story about two Irish girls who study together in Dublin and the relationship they forge between them, but it’s also a deeply political novel that will melt even the hardest of hearts.

#50 A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The popularity of the HBO series pretty much guarantees that A Game Of Thrones will appear in the Dymocks Top 101 list for years to come. I know it’s sacrilegious to admit this, but I’m actually really glad that I watched the TV adaptation before I sat down to read the book. Fantasy stories with dozens of place names and characters and complicated made-up languages drive me up the wall, so having it all straight in my head before I began really helped me properly enjoy Martin’s intricate story of love and war. Read my full review here.

#52 The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Along with Gone Girl (which came in at #37), this book launched the international publishing trend of Books With “Girl” In The Title. We saw “girls” everywhere: on trains, in windows, being good, being bad, coming, going… The widespread infantilisation of female characters really bothered me, and I’m so glad to see we’re finally at the tail end of it, but The Girl On The Train remains popular enough to earn its spot in the Top 101 (albeit considerably further down than last year, when it reached #14). Read my full review here.

#55 The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have no idea how or why The Narrow Road To The Deep North has risen some twenty spots since last year’s Dymocks book list, but it has! As far as I know, no film adaptation has been announced, no new release has got Flanagan’s name back in the spotlight, no new awards have been given… apparently, booklovers this year just enjoyed it more than last. Strange, eh? I finally got around to reading it recently – my first-ever Booker prize winner! – and I was strangely impressed. As much as I’ve gone off historical WWII fiction (I usually prefer real-life accounts, which I find more impactful), I really appreciated the way that Flanagan didn’t shy away from the gritty, awful realities of war. Read my full review here.

#58 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As long as we have hippies on their quest for spiritual awakening, we will have The Alchemist in the Dymocks 101. I can’t honestly say, having read it, that it changed my life or made me look at the world any differently. That said, it was an easy read – almost like a child’s fairytale – and I can see that there’s plenty of fodder to treat it as a sacred text. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to bother reading it, but maybe temper your expectations in terms of its ability to open up your mind to a higher power. Read my full review here.

#61 The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Really, the only surprise here is that The Subtle Art Of Giving A Fuck is so far down the list! This book, with its striking orange cover and its shameless profanity (of which I’m fully in favour), was everywhere in 2018. Perhaps the Dymocks Booklovers are a self-assured literary lot who don’t need self-help gurus to sort out their messy lives? Probably. But I’ll admit, the hype lured me in; I picked up a copy of this one a little while back and I know I’ll have to read it eventually, just to see what all the fuss is about.

#62 The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I cannot recall a single year, in all my time following the Dymocks Booklovers Top 101, where The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy hasn’t featured somewhere. It got a much higher rank last year (#19), but it’s always guaranteed a spot – a testament to its enduring popularity. This book is beloved, not just in the sci-fi community but in the broader general readership. In fact, I had a devil of a time trying to find it secondhand, because no one ever wants to part with their copy! Eventually, I did pick one up, and I’m glad I persisted because it’s an actual honest-to-goodness first edition – it’ll be worth a quid someday! Read my full review here.

#64 Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reckoning is the memoir of Australia’s beloved comedian and activist Magda Szubanski. I’ll never forget my overwhelming feeling of joy and relief the day that Australia voted Yes to marriage equality, and I got to see Magda address the gathered crowd in celebration. She is inextricably linked to that campaign in my mind, and I’m eternally grateful for her faith and persistence in changing Australia for the better. Her account of coming to terms with her family history, her sexuality, and her place in the world is truly captivating, a must-read!

#68 The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Andy Weir has one of those overnight-success stories that was years in the making. He slogged away writing The Martian, fielding rejections left and right, until – fed up – he published the whole thing for free on his own website. Now, here he is, eight years later, with millions of book sales under his belt, a major film adaptation starring Matt Damon, a follow-up book on the shelves (and another one in the works, as I understand it), and another year running in the Dymocks 101. See? Persistence pays! Read my full review of The Martian here.

#84 The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner is such a remarkable book on so many fronts that I don’t quite know where to begin in describing it. For one, the subject – Sandra Pankhurst – is a trans woman, and (off the back of International Transgender Day of Visibility last week) I think it’s amazing that so many people are connecting with her story, allowing it to resonate, and learning through it. She is also a former sex worker, drag queen, husband – she’s lived one heck of a life! The occupation of “trauma cleaner” is a fascinating, terrifying, and at-times literally unbelievable one; this account will leave your mouth hanging open at the end of every passage.

#88 Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was really surprised to see that the news of a sequel – for the book, and the film – to Aciman’s juggernaut Call Me By Your Name didn’t give it more of a boost in the Dymocks Top 101 rankings this year. Still, I’m happy to see it here at all! Calling it “one of the great love stories of our time” might be a bit of a stretch, but not a big one. The book depicts a beautiful love affair that blossoms between a confused teenager and an older grad student, against the stunning backdrop of a family home in Italy. The follow-up is sure to be a runaway best-seller, so make sure you get in on this one now (if you haven’t already)

#91 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If my vote was the only one that counted, My Brilliant Friend would probably come in at #1 in every Dymocks 101 for the next twenty years or so. As it stands, I’ll have to settle for it coming in here towards the end… for now. Elena Ferrante’s book – the first of her Neapolitan Novels – is quite frankly one of the best I have ever read. The way she weaves the story of two girls growing up, a tenuous and torrid friendship ebbing and flowing between them, in mid-20th century Naples is just… breathtaking. Truly! I’m starting my campaign to get her a ranking she deserves in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2020 right now! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.


Notable Exclusions: I think the fine folks at Dymocks are taking some editorial license and cutting out cook books and other gimmicky options. This Top 101 is light on self-help, and non-fiction across the board (just eighteen non-fiction books, by my count). I’m really surprised that Wuthering Heights wasn’t included (especially after Jane Eyre made the cut!), and there were relatively few classics on the whole, too (only nine included this year).

You might have noticed a generally positive and up-beat tone to a lot of the books on the list. Kate Maynor from Dymocks has confirmed they’re seeing a trend towards what she called “UpLit” – stories in which protagonists have to go through a level of darkness to reach an ultimately redeeming end. That’s hardly a new premise in literature, but I can see why it’s having a resurgence; given the dark times in which we live and work, a little “up” with our lit is a welcome respite.

It’s a shame that Tracker didn’t make the list, and there’s a disturbing (ongoing) trend of under-representation of Indigenous Australian storytelling. It’s great to see more Australian authors on the list each year, but the fact that so few of them are from our Indigenous community really sours it for me.

Dymocks Booklovers have made huge strides in terms of gender equality – the 2019 Top 101 list has reached rough parity – but there’s still a way to go in terms of other intersectional identities. I’ve got my fingers crossed that more marginalised authors make the cut next year; I think disability activist Carly Findlay’s new book, Say Hello, is a strong contender!

What do you think of the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2019? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Check out what I thought of last year’s Dymocks Top 101 list here!

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

If I was all hung up on being technically correct (pfft, you guys wouldn’t believe it was me), this post would be called “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver”. That was the title Jonathan Swift chose for this novel, published under a pseudonym in 1729. He chose to use a pen name because his work was full of political commentary and satire, and his real name was closely associated with the Tories (who had fallen into disrepute, imagine that). He said he wrote the world to “vex the world rather than divert it”. But as time went on, more and more people referred to it as simply Gulliver’s Travels, and here we are.

Gulliver’s Travels reads like the travel blog of a bloke who gallivanted around the world in the 1700s, when atlases were woefully incomplete. The story kicks off with his first voyage, which he dates as occurring in 1699. His ship is wrecked (oh, yeah, you need to know right from the outset that Gulliver is super unlucky), and he washes ashore in the strange land of Lilliput. It is inhabited by a race of tiny people, all less than six inches tall. At first, they’re totally cool with this random giant (Gulliver) showing up in their ‘hood, but they’re (understandably) fucking terrified of the power he wields over them with his size. He learns that they’re kind of loopy, on the whole, and they focus on trivial things. Prime example: they’ve long been engaged in out-and-out military warfare with a neighbouring society of equally-tiny people, because they crack open their eggs at the opposite end. All things considered, Gulliver doesn’t really fit in with the Lilliputians, and he gets the fuck out of Dodge.

Not one to be put-off (oh, yeah, old mate Gulliver is also quite slow on the uptake), he sets out on another voyage in 1702. This time, his fellow sailors abandon him on a peninsula in North Africa. This is pretty much Opposite Land after Lilliput, because the farmer that finds him is 72ft tall and the grass seems as high as the trees back in England. Gulliver – now teeny-tiny, in relative terms – is treated as a side-show curiosity by the giants that take him in, and he is eventually sold as a pet to the Queen of their realm. After a few more adventures (including – and I’m not kidding, I swear – a fight with a gargantuan wasp and an escapade with a monkey), the box that Gulliver’s been living in is picked up by a seagull and dropped out to sea. There, he is rescued by some sailors, regular-sized ones, who return him safely to England once more.


Remember how I said Gulliver is slow on the uptake? Yeah, well, his travels don’t end there. In 1706, he sets off again, and this time his ship is attacked by pirates. This dude must’ve been cursed! He finds himself marooned on a rocky island near India, in a kingdom of people obsessed with music, mathematics, and astronomy… in theory. They’re all book-smart, he quickly finds, but not so good with the practical living. He helpfully points out to the reader that they taught him an important lesson about the blind pursuit of science and art without practical results (and, yes, this was Swift making one of those political points of his about bureaucracy, and the Royal Society’s controversial experiments), before making his way home…

… but not for long. Full of impractical wanderlust-bravado, Gulliver heads back out, this time as the captain of a ship, only to have his crew commit mutiny and abandon him on the first lump of sand they find. That’s where he finds a race of deformed savage human-esque creatures (the “Yahoos”), and he’s rescued by a race of talking horses (the “Houyhnhnms”). I don’t think I need to point out the metaphor here, because Swift hits you over the head with it repeatedly until the end of the book. It’s basically Planet of the Apes, but with horsies. Gulliver lives among the Houyhnhnms (even though they’re highly suspicious of him, with the resemblance he bears to their Yahoo mortal enemies, of course), and he hangs around for a long, long time. Eventually, they kick him out for being too Yahoo-y, and he gets home only to find that he is now repulsed by his own kind. He lives out the rest of his days in his stables, ignoring his wife and chit-chatting to the horses about life and philosophy and whatever. The end.

By now, a lot of the structural elements of Gulliver’s Travels have become stock-standard, but at the time they were downright revolutionary. There’s a clear downward spiral, as the causes of Gulliver’s “travels” become more and more malignant: shipwrecked, abandoned, boarded by pirates, mutinied by his own crew. As that plays out, Gulliver himself devolves from a cheery optimist to a pompous misanthrope. And each section of the novel forms the equal but opposite of the previous part: the Lilliputians are tiny, but then Gulliver finds himself in a society where he’s the tiny one, and so on and so forth.


I can’t say I liked Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because I got increasingly pissed off at the fact that Gulliver seems to completely forget all about his wife and family. Mrs Gulliver is the most sympathetic character in the whole story, no shit. Even though he comes home in the end, he’s spent too much time on Planet Of The Horses and he decides that she’s an “odious Yahoo”, and refuses to have anything to do with her. Sometimes, if he feels particularly benevolent, he’ll “permit” her to sit with him at dinner, as long as she stays at the opposite end of the table and he can stuff his nose with “rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves” to mask her human stench. Oh, and he commands her to answer any questions with the “utmost brevity”, so he doesn’t have to put up with her yammering on. What a guy!

I wondered why more of the book didn’t feel familiar, because I’d watched a film adaptation (on VHS! remember those?) about a hundred times when I was a kid. Then, I looked it up and worked out that it only covered two of the “several remote nations” to which Gulliver travelled. Apparently a lot of film adaptations do that, because the first couple of “travels” are the easiest to film and communicate on-screen; plus, they’re the most kid-friendly, and Gulliver’s Travels is widely regarded as a children’s book, even though there’s a lot of political commentary and allegory behind the childish imagery. I suppose that makes it an old-timey version of Shrek, really.

Don’t be fooled, though: Gulliver’s Travels has had a considerable impact on literature, and indeed the English language on the whole. In this book, we can find the origins of science fiction, and the structure of the modern novel. Even the term “yahoo” (meaning “a rude, noisy, or violent person” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is drawn from Swift’s work – another English word that has its roots in classic literature! It’s just a shame I couldn’t enjoy it properly because the main character was such an unremitting arsehole.


My favourite part (not that I felt spoiled for choice) was where Gulliver meets a King, who moonlights as psychic medium John Edward. He can recall people from the dead, but only for 24 hours at a time, and only once every three months. Gulliver talks him into bringing back Aristotle, assorted Roman emperors, dead Kings, and so forth. There’s a really touching passage where he laments the fact that history is written by the victors, and all these dickheads (who he’d been taught all his life were “great men”) were basically the Donald Trumps of their day. All the people who’d stood up to them and fought the good fight had either been forgotten or had their names dragged through the mud. Gulliver declares that he’s fed up with fake news, and he’s calling bullshit on it all – surprisingly poignant, eh?

My tl;dr summary of Gulliver’s Travels: Gulliver leaves his wife and kids at home to gallivant around the world, four times over, even though he constantly meets with disaster and winds up a prisoner in some foreign land or another. He becomes such a twisted misanthrope that he gives up on humanity and lives out his days ankle-deep in horse shit. Sure, the academics will say that it’s an ever-relevant critique of corruption and religion and government… but I can’t get past the wife-abandonment. Gulliver pretty much got what he deserved, is what I’m saying, and his wife could have done so much better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gulliver’s Travels:

  • “This was the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. My whole family hates it too. Honestly, I could barley read it for 10 minutes without it putting me to sleep from Gulliver dragging on about garbage no one cares about. I would rather drink a gallon of mayonnaise then read this, actually I would BATHE in mayonnaise for a MONTh then read this book. And don’t even think about saying “oh I bet its not THAT bad,” because it IS THAT BAD! I wish I didn’t have to read this book for my class, but by the time i’m done, I might as well burn the book.” – AmazonShoper
  • “Useless as a book.” – Flordelis
  • “Sucked.” – Morgan
  • “Mostly good stories.” – John H. Long

Award Winning Books Worth Reading

Booklovers take their book-loving seriously, and their opinions vary – widely. So any award that picks one book as the “best” of a given year or genre is always going to be controversial. Literary awards honour the great authors of our time, and winning a major one pretty much guarantees that a book will fly off the shelves as people to scramble to see whether it’s worthy. It’s a high-stakes game, this literary award business! Today on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we take a look at some of the major awards and ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question: are there any award winning books that are worth your time?

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time - Text Overlaid on Image of Trophy and Sparkly Lights - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Major Literary Awards

Let’s take a quick look at some of those major awards and prizes, shall we?

  • The Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best original novel, written in English, that’s had a print run in the U.K.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author (supposedly from any country, but more on that in a minute), who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recognises a distinguished work of fiction by an American writer (usually themed around American life) published in the preceding calendar year.
  • The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback (founder of revolutionary sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories); they recognise the best science-fiction and fantasy works of the preceding year.
  • The Miles Franklin Literary Award is awarded each year to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. (The Stella Prize is also awarded each year to a female writer, in response to a perceived gender bias in the selection of Miles Franklin winners. Both awards are named after legendary Australian author [Stella] Miles Franklin.)
  • The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually to American authors of fiction who have produced the year’s “best” works. The organisation claims it to be the “largest peer-juried award in America”.
  • The National Book Awards are presented each year by the National Book Foundation in the U.S., and traditionally includes two lifetime achievement awards.
  • The Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.

This is, obviously, a very, very small sample of a rather large pool of major literary prizes. There are dozens of others in every country, and across every conceivable genre and market.

Booker Award Controversies

Controversy plagues every literary award, in one way or another, and the sniping only grows bigger and uglier as the award becomes more prestigious. If we’re going to look at some examples, we might as well start right at the top, with the Man Booker.

Take, for instance, the great Trainspotting drama of 1993. Two judges threatened to quit the Booker committee after Irvine Welsh’s “vulgar” novel was named on the long-list that year. The book offended their feminist sensitivities, so much so that it was subsequently pulled from the short-list. Welsh didn’t respond well (even by my low standards); he called the prize imperialist, and said that “any claim that it’s an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”.

The shit-slinging doesn’t stop there. In 2001, A.L. Kennedy said that the Booker is “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Her experiences on the committee in the ’90s had convinced her that the winner was determined only by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. She also claimed to be the only judge who had read all 300 novels under consideration – yikes.


The same year that Kennedy called bullshit, there was an unrelated whoops-y in the announcement of the winner. Life Of Pi had pretty long odds, until the prize’s website accidentally announced it as the winner a week before the official decision. I’d imagine the originator of that particular fuck-up had to go into some kind of witness protection, because bookies have been known to take baseball bats to kneecaps and they had to pay out all of the bets when the leak later proved to be correct.

The most recent revelations about more Booker scandals (oh yeah, there’s plenty more!) can be found here.

And, lest you get the impression that the Booker is the worst of the lot, let me tack on a couple of Nobel disasters. The Swedish award has long been the target of accusations of political bias and Eurocentrism in their selection process. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkov never got the gong, oversights that have been widely attributed to Sweden’s long-held antipathy towards Russia. On multiple occasions, other authors from outside of Europe have also been controversially and bafflingly snubbed; in 1974, Grahame Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were all over-looked in favour of a joint award to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who (to this day!) remain relatively unknown outside their home country. (And you should know, they were both Nobel judges themselves – a pure coincidence, I’m sure, but…)

via GIPHY

It’s all enough to make you wonder whether the awards mean anything at all. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that merit clearly isn’t the only criteria at play in picking the winners. But, despite the drama, now and then these committees pick a winner that is, y’know, actually a winner. Let’s take a look at some of the award winning books that are worth your time…

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1921)

Leading the charge, we’ve got The Age of Innocence (and you can check out my full review for the run-down). The committee almost overlooked this early 20th century gem, but in the end Wharton’s competition was disqualified on political grounds. And that’s the story of how she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction *fist pump*. Now, this isn’t to say that gender equality was achieved as of that moment – it was one very small step, and one could perhaps even question its ongoing relevance given the way that women have been overlooked for literary awards in the century since – but you never forget the first 😉 And if that’s not reason enough to invest your eyeballs, the story’s pretty damn good! Buy it here.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Hugo Award (2016)

Not all award winners are lofty works of literary fiction, only comprehensible to English majors 😉 The Martian scored a Hugo Award, and went on to become one of the biggest break-through sci-fi novels of the past decade. I was pretty hesitant when I first picked it up, because sci-fi isn’t my go-to genre and I’m skeptical of any film adaptation starring Matt Damon, but goshdarn it was funny! I cackled out loud on every other page (check out my full review); Weir’s characterisation and voice is strong and direct and hilarious. Plus, the premise is pretty compelling – a lone man abandoned on a planet, forced to find a way to survive on meager rations until help arrives – and it forces the reader to confront the terrifying thought of what they’d do in that situation. Buy it here.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1961)

Forty years after Edith Wharton got the gong, Harper Lee was called up – for her first (and only) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s one of the only books I’ve read that’s truly exceeded the hype, and I’m not sure I can recommend it more highly than that (I mean, the hype is considerable). I completely understand if you take issue with some of the racial politics of the book, especially given that it has been so widely and consistently lauded with nary a mention of some of its more problematic elements, but the writing is exquisite, so I’d say it’s worth a look regardless (check out my review here to see why). Plus, it’s had many tangible real-world impacts since its release – consider the formation of the Atticus Finch Legal Society, for instance – so reading it will get you up to speed on that front, too. Buy it here.

The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2009) (and the ABIA Book Of The Year, and the ABA Book Of The Year, and a bunch more)

Christos Tsiolkas won nearly every major literary award in Australia – except the biggie, the Miles Franklin (for which he was short-listed) – with The Slap. I read it a few years ago, and I don’t mind confessing: I had to take a few runs at it. I bought a copy in a fit of unbridled optimism about my future reading life (it’s a long book), only to pick it up once every couple of months, and then abandon it after a few pages. It followed me, languishing in the bottom of a suitcase, as I moved up and down the country. When I finally got around to finishing it, I was so glad I’d persisted! The catalyst of a slap at a family barbecue sets off a chain of reactions, sucking multiple characters and families into a vortex. This one would be particularly good for readers overseas who still think of Australia as the home of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee; Tsiolkas’ treatment of Australian suburbia and community is searing, confronting, and insightful. Buy it here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2014)

I know, I know, I squeeze this one in with just about every list of recommended books I write here on the blog: I make no apologies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves definitely deserves its place here. I wouldn’t recommend reading my review until after you’ve read the book; the plot twist is just so damn good, don’t let anything ruin it for you! I’m this book’s biggest advocate and proponent now, and I think its relatively understated popularity is infuriating. And, let’s be honest, I’m still bitter that it lost out to The Narrow Road To The Deep North for the Booker Prize in 2014; luckily, the folks judging the PEN/Faulkner saw sense. Buy it here.

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais (1933)

Stella Gibbons was snubbed by the literary world for the most part, so she makes it into this list by the skin of her teeth. Her crime was satirising D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries, making fun of their horniness-masquerading-as-moral-philosophy and their attempts to write vernacular. Luckily, she still managed to score a gong or two, and in all honesty Cold Comfort Farm deserved a lot more. It’s really the only novel for which Gibbons is remembered (also a shame, because she was pretty damn prolific), and even then it’s not all that widely read, not even in academia. It’s a snarkier, sassier, more modern Jane Austen – a great one to read when you need a good laugh! Buy it here.

I’m actually pretty behind in reading the award winners, so there’s every chance I’ve missed some fantastic worthy inclusions here – please give me your suggestions in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.


The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.



Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

 

My Bookish Timeline

Have you ever mocked up your bookish timeline? Probably not (I might be the only person nerdy enough to actually think about shit like this). Take a look over your shelves, then: are you mostly in the 18th century? Or do you like to hang out in the years of your youth? It might sound like a really boring exercise, but hold your judgment: it’s actually really interesting to take a look at your books this way. It tells you a lot about yourself and your reading habits, and it might even give you some additional insights into the books themselves. For instance, I remember The Scarlet Letter reading like a way older book than David Copperfield, and yet it turns out they were published in the very same year. So, I couldn’t help myself, I had to know more! I present to you: the Keeping Up With The Penguins bookish timeline.




A Bookish Timeline - Keeping Up With The Penguins


So, all told, my bookish timeline spans 695 years. Only 30 of the 109 books are from this century, and yet, for some reason, the single year that produced the most books on my reading List was 2013. Random, eh? Most of my Recommended reads are from the 19th century (so far, anyway), so maybe I enjoy the classics more than I thought I would. I’d also assumed that perhaps the reason it feels like I’m reading so many novels about WWII is that the bulk of my reading list came from the years immediately after the conflict, but in reality I’m only reading twenty books from the following four decades, so there goes that theory. But putting together my bookish timeline was a fruitful exercise in many other respects, and I reckon you should all give it a go 😉 Drop your most interesting insights in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Nancy Wake ever since a friend told me about her a couple of years ago. She was one of the most highly decorated women of WWII, and the stories of her exploits in resisting the Gestapo are legendary. That’s why I added this book in particular to The List. Peter FitzSimons wrote a far more popular biography (which I would also like to read some day), but I really wanted to hear the story of this incredible woman in her own words. The White Mouse wasn’t hugely popular upon release, and it didn’t have a massive print-run, so I thought I had sweet fuck-all chance of finding it in a secondhand bookstore. I always checked the biography section just in case, never expecting much… until one day I ducked into my local while I was waiting for a bus, and there it was! To this day, I can’t believe my luck.

OK, it turns out that Nancy Wake was actually born in New Zealand, even though we claim her as an Aussie (we will claim any decent Kiwi as our own without blinking an eye, it never ceases to amaze). In The White Mouse, she only gives us a page or two about her early life, though; she speeds right ahead to the ascendancy of Hitler and the beginning of WWII. She was living in Marseilles with her French husband at the time, and she found increasingly inventive ways to help the French efforts resisting the Germans, helping sneak refugees out of France when the Occupation began. She went on to become a leading figure in the Resistance, using her “native cunning and beauty” to overcome the suspicions of German guards and get through checkpoints. Yep, she literally flirted her way through the war, all the while killing German soldiers with her bare hands. That’s girl power, folks.

The Special Operations Executive training reports say that she was “a very good and fast shot”, noted for “put[ting] men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character”. She also won a lot of drinking contests. By 1943, there was a 5-million franc price on her head. The Gestapo took to calling her “the White Mouse”, referring to her ability to elude capture – thus, the book title.


Her story is incredible, but the editing is shithouse, which is a real shame. There’s more than a few typos, and a lot of repetition; I quickly lost track of the number of times she described something as “extraordinary”. Little things like that could have been easily (and quickly!) fixed, and that would have made for a much more engaging read. We can hardly fault Wake herself for that; she was a bad-ass assassin spy, not a writer. And the level of detail she manages to recall is unbelievable – she must have kept really meticulous journals.

“For weeks now I had been subjected to more than my fair share of drama. I had been forced to flee from home, separated from my beloved husband and my darling [dog] Picon, made six fruitless journeys to the Pyrenees, been thrown in prison and kicked around, jumped out of a moving train, been fired at by a machine gun, sprinted to the top of a mountain, lost my jewellery, walked for five nights, been starved for eight days, and infected with scabies. There was no way I was going to let the little matter of a password deter me…. I crossed the road, went up to the front door and knocked. A man opened it and immediately I said, ‘I am Nancy Fiocca, you are in charge of our guides, I work for O’Leary, so do you, I want to go to Spain, I’ve had enough trouble getting here so don’t give me any crap.’”

So, yeah, as you can tell, Wake had a really matter-of-fact voice, and she talks really nonchalantly about the most terrifying of circumstances. Her affect doesn’t change between describing a dinner party and a major Resistance operation. I get the feeling she was much like that in real life as well.

Unfortunately, after the war, she didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after. Her first husband, Henri Fiocca, had stayed behind in France after she was forced to flee, and he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo when he refused to give them her location. Wake, however, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war ended. Her dog survived, and the story of their reunion in peace-time was one of the most heart-warming anecdotes I have ever heard.

She was also denied a medal by the Australian government for over five decades (shame!), on the grounds that she was “not fighting in any of the Australian services” during the war (double shame!). Indeed, from what I can tell, the Australian government treated her like shit in all other regards as well. When her second husband died in 1997, she was deemed ineligible for any pensions or benefits, and she had no children or family to support her. She ended up having to sell her war medals to support herself in her advancing years. Even so, she hardly seemed bitter; she said “There was no point in keeping them [the medals], I’ll probably go to Hell and they’d melt anyway”. She died in 2011, aged 98, of a chest infection.


Reading The White Mouse, I had to examine my own biases really closely. Why was I so enamoured with Nancy Wake, I kept asking myself, when I was so repulsed by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper”? In the end, I think it came down to the fact that Nancy seemed far more grounded in reality, and far more self-aware. While she (self-admittedly) “loathed” the Gestapo, she came across as someone who had quite natural biases and constantly re-evaluated the evidence at hand. She watched the Nazis sack a city that she had lived in and loved for most of her life, first hand. Kyle, on the other hand, came across as someone who had been brainwashed into hating brown people and loving guns, and had never thought to question it.

Nancy Wake’s autobiography isn’t a romantic narrative, so if you’ve come here looking for a non-fiction version of The Book Thief or All The Light We Cannot See, you can move right along. The White Mouse is not a work of art, it’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s deeply – unavoidably! – charming. It’s a story of incredible bravery and hardship, told without any sentimentality or self-effacing bullshit. Imagine if you got your no-nonsense grandma drunk, and found out she’d spent most of her life killing enemy combatants and doing courier runs for an underground resistance movement: that’s what reading The White Mouse is like. I fail to understand our collective obsession with fictionalised WWII narratives when there are books and stories like this out there (and they go out of print due to low sales). I can’t recommend The White Mouse on its artistic merit, but I think that you should read it anyway, and pay your respects to this incredible woman who probably could have won the war single-handedly if she’d needed to.

5 Books That Will Take Your Breath Away

You might think you know what you’re going to find on this list of “books that will take your breath away”, but I’m making it my personal mission to up-end your expectations today, Keeper-Upperers. This week, I reviewed The Bell Jar, and if I were wearing socks it would’ve knocked them right off. It took my breath away literally, at times, and it got me to thinking about the books that do that, and the varying reasons why. So, here’s a list of five books that will take your breath away (and not always for the reasons you’d expect).

5 Books That Will Take Your Breath Away - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Holding Open Book - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Breathtakingly Beautiful Prose: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elena Ferrante is not here to play, people. I’m not (currently) capable of reading My Brilliant Friend in the original Italian, but I can only assume it’s at least as breathtaking as Ann Goldstein’s fantastic English translation. My Brilliant Friend is, at times, toe-curling and stomach-churning. The titular character, the brilliant friend, is sometimes chilling and calculating and cruel… and, yet, Ferrante’s writing is always, always, always just fucking beautiful. If you asked me, apropos of nothing, to name a book of incredible prose, this is the first book I’d recommend.

Breathtakingly Bad: American Sniper (Chris Kyle)

American Sniper - Chris Kyle - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Breathtaking” is not always a good thing: just ask anyone who’s ever had a panic attack, or listened to a really awkward eulogy, or witnessed a car crash. I am still haunted by American Sniper, and Chris Kyle’s truly stunning lack of self-awareness. He’s amused by his own inhumanity, he’s dismissive of his wife and children, he’s remarkably lacking in empathy for people who don’t look like him or worship the same god, and he’s got a massive, throbbing boner for his gun. I hold American Sniper up as the worst example of just about everything, and it is, without a doubt, breathtakingly bad.

Laugh ‘Til You Can’t Breathe: Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might never have heard of Cold Comfort Farm, and that’s okay; heck, I hadn’t, until I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. I don’t mind telling you, though, it’s a travesty that this one is so often overlooked, because Gibbons had a brilliant comedic mind. Cold Comfort Farm is the funniest classic I’ve ever read. An Austen-esque protagonist, finding herself unexpectedly orphaned and ill-equipped for any type of gainful employment, cheerfully imposes upon her long-lost relatives, hell-bent on civilising them through sheer force of will. Do not read any extracts online (indeed, skip the introduction, even), because they won’t seem half as funny out of context and they’ll give you the wrong idea. Trust me on this. I have an excellent sense of humour.

Honourable mentions: The Martian, and Portnoy’s Complaint – both extremely funny in very different ways.

Breathtakingly Sad: The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll concede, this must be the least surprising inclusion on this list. You can get more details from my review this week, but basically it was an alarmingly autobiographical story of a young woman’s descent into deep depression. The life of Esther Greenwood (the protagonist) mirrored the real life of writer Sylvia Plath in almost every way – except that Esther got an almost-happy ending. Plath, sadly, died by suicide just weeks after The Bell Jar’s publication. It is, of course, beautifully written – at least on par with My Brilliant Friend, in my humble opinion – but it is excruciatingly sad, and not for the faint of heart or easily triggered.

Honourable mention: Still Alice – the prose doesn’t compare in terms of mastery, but Lisa Genova’s story of a middle-aged woman’s descent into Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease is still incredibly heartbreaking.

Hold Your Breath ‘Til It’s Over: Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve never quite reconciled my love of Lolita. Nabokov’s writing is awe-inspiring, the beauty of the language almost incomparable, and yet the subject matter… it’s haunting, horrifying, and hypnotic, in equal measures. Humbert Humbert is truly despicable, and reading the entire story from his perspective (the voice of his victim, the young Lolita, is completely silenced) is too much for some readers. It’s a book often abandoned and it’s not hard to see why. But I loved it in a way that, like I said, I can’t quite reconcile. I insist that everyone at least gives it a go (somewhat selfishly, I’ll admit – I just hope I won’t be the only one who sees its beauty!).

Honourable mention: A Clockwork Orange – Burgess depicted the most gut-churning gore and violence (both criminal and state-sanctioned) in a nonsense language (Nasdat) of his own devising, and yet the imagery was crystal clear.

What weird reason has a book taken your breath away? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bell Jar:

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