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10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend heavy non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. I took a crack at it here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. But that’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention. Barack Obama has recommended her later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protégé. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work. Read my full review here.

Ulysses – James Joyce

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I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it comes highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence, so maybe I’m going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Oates does concede that it’s “not easy”, but apparently every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort – so there’s some hope yet!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of being called The Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class. And, not least of all by any means, I recommend it too

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. I didn’t mind it either, check out my review here 😉

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women, and I figure if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me! American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. And J.K. Rowling lists Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, as her favourite character in literature:

“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

J.K. Rowling

Bonus: as much as Rowling loved Jo March, she actually lists Jane Austen’s Emma as her favourite book of all time (check out my full review here), and says she has read it at least twenty times.

1984 – George Orwell

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I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!

What do you think of these book recommendations? Have these brilliant minds missed any of your special favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Want more surprising book recommendations? Throw some change in the tip jar, so I can keep on Keeping Up With The Penguins and bring you more!



Got Beef? Five Famous Literary Feuds

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

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Aldous Huxley vs George Orwell

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

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

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

George Orwell (1946)

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

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

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

Aldous Huxley (1949)

As best we know, they never buried the hatchet.

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

Henry James vs H.G. Wells

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

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

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

Mark Twain vs Jane Austen

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

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

Mark Twain

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

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

Mark Twain

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

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

Mark Twain

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

Charles Dickens vs Hans Christian Andersen

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

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

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

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

Charles Dickens

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

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

Salman Rushdie vs The World

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

Salman Rushdie vs John Updike

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

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

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

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

Salman Rushdie vs John le Carré

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

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

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

Salman Rushdie

But Johnny did not back down without a fight!

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

John le Carré

Shots fucking fired! Rushdie came back:

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

Salman Rushdie

And he added, later:

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

Salman Rushdie

Thank God we got receipts for all of this!

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

Salman Rushdie vs Peter Carey

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

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

He also called them “pussies”.

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

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

Salman Rushdie vs Roald Dahl

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

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

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

Roald Dahl (1989)

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

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

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

Bonus Literary Feuds!

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

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

Vladimir Nabakov

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

On The Road – Jack Kerouac

It’s certainly the season for dramatic gear shifts. I’ve gone from hyper-masculine military memoir American Sniper, to subtle 19th century social satire Emma, and now on to the quintessential American road trip novel: Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It’s never boring keeping up with the Penguins, I tell ya!

On The Road is based on the 20-something Kerouac’s travels across the United States in the years following WWII. In fact, it’s more than “based on”: it’s basically a true story with a bunch of fake names to protect the guilty. Kerouac spent years scrawling drafts in various notebooks before finally gritting his teeth and sitting down at his typewriter. He spat out the entire thing on a single scroll of paper. Yes, you read that right. The original scroll stretched over 120 feet (and it sold in 2001 for $2.43 million). By the time the book was finally published in 1957, Kerouac was thirty-five years old. Critics have said that Kerouac spent the first half of his life struggling to write On The Road, and the second half of his life trying to live it down.

What did he have to live down, exactly? On The Road went gangbusters upon its release, after all. The New York Times called it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’, and whose principal avatar he is”. That’s a rave review right there! But Kerouac learned quickly that coining the name of a generation, and being their “avatar” no less, ain’t all beer and skittles. Interviewers badgered him with constant questions about “Beat” culture, and showed relatively little interest in his actual work. As you can imagine, Jack got jack of it pretty quickly (ha!).

I’d heard of the “Beat generation” before I sat down to read On The Road, but couldn’t have told you a damn thing about it. Luckily, On The Road is basically a crash course for-dummies guide, so I’m all across it now. The Beat generation was effectively a literary movement that emerged in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Kerouac and his buddies (on whom the characters in On The Road are based) were basically the Tumblr kids of their day. The Beat generation were characterised by their rejection of traditional values (especially the materialism underpinning American culture at the time); as such, they’re well renowned for their spiritual quests, their drug use, and their raunchy sex lives.


In terms of plot, On The Road follows the narrator Sal Paradise on a series of hodge-podge journeys back and forth across the United States. It is split into five parts.

Part One (1947) covers Sal’s first trip from New York to San Francisco (via Denver), and back again (via Bakersfield). Sal is a pretty flawed human; he lacks any real conviction, he drinks a little too much, and he has terrible luck with women. Still, despite his shortcomings, he had a certain chutzpah that I admired. He certainly wasn’t too proud to ask his aunt or friends for money. There was no machismo bullshit, which felt like a breath of fresh air when it comes to young white male characters. Anyway, Sal is basically just looking to party on with his friends across the country. He’s particularly keen to hang out with the other central character, free-spirited maverick Dean Moriarty. Sal also ends up having a brief dalliance with a Mexican girl named Terry on the return journey, but he abandons her to carry on home. Like I said, he’s not exactly a stand-up guy.

Part Two (1948) begins with Sal in Virginia. Dean comes to join him, and from there they drive to New York, then to New Orleans, then to San Francisco. They make friends and party with people all along the way, and the trip ends with Sal taking the bus back to New York once more.

In Part Three (1949), Sal takes the bus from New York to Denver, then trudges on to meet up with Dean (who is having serious woman troubles) in San Francisco. Together, they bounce around the country a bit (Sacramento, Denver, Chicago, Detroit), dreaming up hair-brained schemes that never quite pan out. They eventually return to New York, where Dean knocks up a(nother) girl. It was around this point that I figured out the Beat generation actually invented Uber. Seriously: Sal and Dean travel the country using ride-sharing programs organised by the travel bureaus of each city. Who knew?

Anyway, Part Four (1950) sees Sal leave Dean (who is now living an almost-normal domestic life), and take a crazy bus journey through Washington D.C., Ashland, Cincinnati, and St Louis, before meeting up with a different friend (Stan) in Denver. Dean quickly ditches his new life, and comes to join them in a beat-up old car. The three of them drive it across Texas and down into Mexico, where they party on until Sal gets dysentery. It’s a major buzz-kill. Dean ditches him there, which is not very neighbourly of him, but sadly not out of character.

The final section, Part Five, is only a few pages long. Sal has recovered and returned to New York. He has settled down with a new wife (Laura). They plan to move to San Francisco together, but Dean shows up and fucks with their plans. The story ends with Sal’s sensible friend (Remi) refusing to give Dean a lift across town. Sal gets a bit wistful about it, the end.


If you were able to bear with me through that summary, well done. If you struggled, be warned that you might struggle following the book as well. The writing is pretty frantic, in line with Kerouac’s dedication to a style of “spontaneous prose” (i.e., he types out whatever comes off the top of his head in the moment, and all editing can go to hell). It’s worth muddling through, though, for the character sketches, which are absolutely sublime:

“Marylou was watching Dean as she had watched him clear across the country and back, out of the corner of her eye – with a sullen, sad air, as though she wanted to cut off his head and hide it in her closet, an envious and rueful love of him so amazingly himself, all raging and sniffy and crazy-wayed, a smile of tender dotage but also sinister envy that frightened me about her, a love she knew would never bear fruit because when she looked at his hangjawed bony face with its male self-containment and absentmindedness she knew he was too mad.”

My favourite character was actually one of the bit-players: Sal’s aunt. She puts him up whenever he’s bored of catching busses, and she sends him money whenever he asks. To put it another way, she puts up with all his bullshit without complaint, but commands enough respect that Sal really cares about her opinion of him. He says of her: “My aunt once said that the world would never find peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness”. That line really stuck with me, more than anything else from On The Road, and I’ve used it at least a dozen times since. It seems particularly poignant given the global revolt against “Weinstein culture” over the past 18 months.

On The Road is to the Beat generation of the ’40s and ’50s what The Sun Also Rises was to the Lost generation of the ’20s. You’ll often see them compared, held up side-by-side. I’m going to plant my flag and say that On The Road was the better of the two, because to my mind it presented a far more self-aware and nuanced treatment of masculinity. I’m not sure I’d call it a Recommended read, though. I can see why American beatniks and hippies loved it, but for me it was just okay. Check it out if you like crazy roadtrips and don’t mind listening to people ramble when they’re high.

My favourite Amazon reviews of On The Road:

  • “Disappointed. It read like a poorly written diary. The main characters wasted much of their life and I felt like I was wasting mine reading about it.” – Linda Carroll
  • “This is a book. It has words in it that create sentences which in turn create paragraphs. Amazing.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Book made me want to leave my family for adventure.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I thought this was “on the road” by the famous TV personality John Karult. What a disappointing surprise.” – Frederick R. Dublin

Still shaking your head in disbelief picturing Kerouac hunched over his typewriter with that huge scroll? Check out my list of the most bizarre writing methods of successful authors here.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A pit full of fire.’

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

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

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

 

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What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read

There’s no use hiding it: we all pretend to have read books we really haven’t. Mark Twain once famously described a “classic” as a book that people praise and don’t read. These fibs aren’t such a big deal when you’re having a casual chat with your family over lunch, or talking to a stranger at a bus stop… but what about the high-stakes of a first date? Favourite books are a go-to conversation starter, but what if you’ve never read their beloved Hemingway or Faulkner? It could throw your perceived compatibility with that hottie into peril. It’s fake-it-or-make-it time! To save you dashing to the bathroom to read a Wikipedia summary, I’ve put together a cheat sheet: here’s what to say to your Tinder date about books you never read.

What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read - Black Text in Yellow Square on Image of Couple Sitting In The Sun - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “It’s all about the monster within, you know?”
Do say: “Ah, the prototype of doppelgänger literature!”

Luckily, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is popular and enduring enough to have become an English idiom, so you probably know more about it than you think. It’s a super-short novel (closer to a novella), and yet it’s packed to the rafters with symbolic meaning. It can be interpreted as a metaphor for just about anything you want! Bonus points if you reference my favourite analysis: that Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and the emergence of Mr Hyde was a metaphor for his rampant gay sex drive. You might even get the chance to take the intellectual upper-hand if your date calls it “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”; Stevenson intentionally (and infuriatingly) excluded the preposition from its original title.

I’ve actually posted a full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde just this week, so you can check that out if you need more detail.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “I just love how Hemingway would show, not tell!”
Do say: “While it lacks Hemingway’s characteristic sparseness, it’s a fascinating insight into the changing role of men after the First World War.”

The Sun Also Rises isn’t my favourite from Hemingway’s works (see my review here for details), but a lot of people love it so it might crop up in conversation. If you can, steer the conversation towards the origins of the story in Hemingway’s own life. No one’s quite sure whether Hemingway was rejected from the military due to his poor eyesight, or whether he just wussed out of being a soldier and snagged a position as an ambulance driver instead. Either way, themes of rejection and cowardice and male insecurity are present in all of his work. The Sun Also Rises is a “roman à clef” (a true story dressed up as fiction) based on the lives of Hemingway and his friends in the “Lost Generation”.

Hint: Hemingway is famously nicknamed “Papa”, so you’ll sound like a real literary insider if you call him that now and then.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “That’s the long one about the whale, right?”
Do say: “Although his masterpiece is a harder slog for the contemporary reader, Melville was undoubtedly superior to Hawthorne.”

If your Tinder date says that Moby Dick is their favourite book, you can be pretty confident you’ve found someone who’s super patient and very persistent. After all, they finished and (apparently) loved a 600-page epic set on board a 19th century whaling ship. Melville experimented with perspective, narrative technique, chronology, and just about everything else that makes a book a book, so Moby Dick is a really tricky read. Like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there are so many different meanings and interpretations of Moby Dick that you can make up pretty much anything you like and it will probably sound alright. If you want to seem like you really have your finger on the pulse, talk about the significance of the work in the present-day context of climate change. Captain Ahab’s attempts to bring the white whale into submission drove him mad and ultimately led to his demise, which could be a metaphor for humanity’s struggle to control and dominate the environment.

Ulysses (James Joyce)

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “It’s, erm, a really hard read, isn’t it?”
Do say: “The focus on his delivery and his experimentation with form and style have really detracted from a true understanding of the work in the popular consciousness.”
Alternative do say: “How about I buy us another round?”

If you ask them, the Ulysses-lover will probably tell you that they are also patient and persistent, but beware: you might find that they’re pretentious and a little bit snobby as well. Ulysses is notorious for being one of the most difficult English-language books in the history of literature, and I see no shame in ‘fessing up that you’ve never read it (and probably never will). If you’re really determined to show off for them, however, you could ask them how they think it compares to Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s novel was, in effect, a response to Joyce’s Ulysses, mirroring its style and form. Both take place over a single day, written in a hectic stream-of-consciousness style, and focus primarily on the lives of two central characters while others weave in and out.

Alternatively, you can simply insist on buying another round and change the subject entirely. It’s up to you.

As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “There’s so many different narrators, it’s too hard to keep track!”
Do say: “Faulkner is so skillful in the way he truly immerses the reader in the culture and vernacular of communities completely foreign to the mainstream.”

Faulkner famously claimed that As I Lay Dying was written and published in a single draft. He said that he wrote the whole thing in six weeks, while working his day job in a power plant. Either he’s a real show-off, or a damn dirty liar. Still, he’s probably the most renowned author of the Southern Gothic genre, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature. As I Lay Dying tells the story of the death and funeral of a Southern matriarch, through the perspective of fifteen different characters in her family and community. The overriding message is that dying can be a relief from the suffering one experiences in life, and families are bonkers.

Bonus tip: pretty much every Faulkner novel features a death and/or a funeral of some kind, so if your date starts talking about any of his other works, just ask him what he thought about Faulkner’s depiction of funeral rites in that context. Works like a charm! Plus, you can read my review of As I Lay Dying right here, if you want to make sure you’ve got it locked and loaded.


If you’re wondering what to say to your Tinder date and the book they mention isn’t listed here, do what I always do when I’m stuck: ask a lot of questions. People love talking about themselves and why they love what they love, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get them on a roll. Make sure you come back here as soon as the date is over and let me know which one I missed, so I can update this post accordingly! (You could also put out a cry for help over at KUWTP on Facebook!)

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The List

By popular demand, here is the full list of Books I’ve Never Read (But Really Should), all to be reviewed and discussed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Click through the links to check out my reviews as I knock them off, one by one…

  1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  3. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  4. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
  5. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  6. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
  7. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
  9. A Game Of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
  10. Divergent – Veronica Roth
  11. The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
  12. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
  13. All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
  14. Still Alice – Lisa Genova
  15. The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
  16. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
  17. The One Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
  18. The Lake House – Kate Morton
  19. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  20. The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
  21. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
  22. The Maze Runner – James Dashner
  23. The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do
  24. Paper Towns – John Green
  25. The Martian – Andy Weir
  26. If I Stay – Gayle Forman
  27. The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
  28. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
  29. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
  30. We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
  31. A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
  32. Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  33. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  34. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  35. Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  36. Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
  37. A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
  38. The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
  39. American Sniper – Chris Kyle
  40. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  41. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
  42. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  43. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
  44. Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
  45. The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
  46. Emma – Jane Austen
  47. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  48. Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli
  49. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
  50. Vanity Fair – William Thackeray
  51. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  52. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  53. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  54. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  55. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  56. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  57. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  58. The Picture Of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde
  59. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  60. Kim – Rudyard Kipling
  61. The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
  62. The Golden Bowl – Henry James
  63. The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  64. The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
  65. The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
  66. Ulysses – James Joyce
  67. A Passage To India – EM Forster
  68. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
  69. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  70. Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend
  71. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  72. The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
  73. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
  74. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  75. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  76. Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos
  77. Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
  78. Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
  79. Murphy – Samuel Beckett
  80. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  81. Party Going – Henry Green
  82. The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  83. All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  84. The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
  85. The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene
  86. The Catcher In The Rye – JD Salinger
  87. The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
  88. Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
  89. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  90. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  91. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
  92. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  93. A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
  94. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  95. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  96. Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
  97. Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis
  98. An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
  99. Amongst Women – John McGahern
  100. True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
  101. She Came To Stay – Simone De Beauvoir
  102. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
  103. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  104. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  105. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  106. The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
  107. The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
  108. The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James
  109. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence

I’ll be reviewing these books in the order I read them, which is no particular order at all. If you think I’ve made a glaring omission, suggest a book for a future review here.

Anything else on your mind? Get in touch and subscribe to my mailing list below to stay up to date!



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