Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Banned Books Reading Challenge

Even though Banned Books Week is an American celebration, spearheaded by the wonderful folks at the American Library Association, I like to think of myself as an honourary beneficiary and advocate across the pond. Books are banned everywhere in the world – including here at home, in Australia – and as such the right to read should be of concern to all of us, no matter where we live. This year, as well as reading banned books, I’ve decided to actively encourage others to read them as well. It shouldn’t be too hard – after all, if someone wants to stop us reading them, they must be good, right? Here’s a Banned Books Reading Challenge to get you started.

I’ve gone through the lists of most-frequently banned books for each year over the past two decades, and distilled them into this (printable!) bingo card, if you’re brave enough to give it a go. It’s a mixture of books, old and new, but they have one thing in common: someone, somewhere, has wanted to ban others from being able to read them. Not on our watch!

If you can’t work out where to start, check out these reviews from the banned books reading challenge:

How many of these banned books have you read? Did you get bingo on this banned books reading challenge? Let me know in the comments below (and recommend another banned book that’s worth a read, if you like!).

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini had been working as a medical internist for a few years in 1999, when he heard on the news that the Taliban had banned kite flying in Afghanistan. It “struck a personal chord” with him, given that kite flying had been his favourite sport when he was growing up in that neck of the woods. That chord inspired him to write a 25-page short story, which he eventually expanded to become The Kite Runner, his debut novel published in 2003 – the story of two young boys whose paths diverge after the Soviet military intervention, and the rise of the Taliban regime.

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Kite Runner here.
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The first half of The Kite Runner is set mostly in 1970s Afghanistan, and follows the strange friendship between two twelve-year-old boys. Amir grew up in a mansion, Hassan in the servants’ quarters. Both boys are motherless. Amir is a sometimes-cruel curious child with a distant but wealthy and powerful father. Hassan is his servant-cum-best-friend, kind and generous. The power in their relationship is distributed as unevenly as you’d imagine given its origins.

They are drawn together, aside from their shared geography and age, by their love of flying kites in local tournaments. Hassan is Amir’s “kite runner”; when Amir cuts down a kite, Hassan runs to retrieve it, seeming to know where it will land on instinct alone. At one particularly important tournament, Amir wins – the trophy, and his father’s attention, a real boon! Hassan runs to find the last kite cut, a great honour. Unfortunately, Hassan encounters the local bully, Assef, in an alleyway upon his return. When Hassan refuses to give up the kite, Assef beats him and (gulp, trigger warning, etc) rapes him. Amir sees what happens, but is too scared to intervene.

Naturally, this decision not to protect his friend haunts him. Amir avoids Hassan, and even goes so far as to plant a watch and some money under Hassan’s mattress to frame him for thievery, hoping it will cause his father to send Hassan and his dad away. It works, after a fashion, and they leave. If only Amir’s conscience was so easy to silence…

The second half of The Kite Runner follows Amir’s return to Afghanistan, some three decades later. He and his father fled to America in the 1980s. Their old family friend, Rahim Khan, begs Amir to return, to say farewell, as he is unwell and near death.

Of course, Rahim had an ulterior motive for luring Amir back to the homeland: he wanted Amir to find Hassan’s son, and care for him, as Hassan had recently been executed in the street by the Taliban, as had his wife. Ooft!

And the punches keep coming for Amir: it turns out Hassan was actually Amir’s biological half-brother, making his son, Sohrab, Amir’s nephew. Blood, water, you know the whole bit.

When Amir tracks down Sohrab, he finds that the boy was taken from an orphanage by a local Taliban leader to work in his house as a “dancing boy” (and subjected to awful abuses, it almost goes without saying). In a startling coincidence, that Taliban leader turns out to be Assef, the childhood bully-slash-rapist. There’s a violent confrontation, which leaves Amir severely wounded, but he and Sohrab manage to escape Assef’s clutches.

You’d think that’d be the end of The Kite Runner, but even after he recovers, Amir still faces an uphill battle to adopt Sohrab and get him back to the States. The process is so stressful for Sohrab, and he so fears ending up in another orphanage, that he (gulp, another trigger warning, hold onto your hat) slits his wrists in a bathtub. Luckily, he survives, but he’s not in good shape emotionally. The Kite Runner ends with Sohrab living in America, with Amir and his wife, but deeply depressed and traumatised by all that he has been through. It’s a resolution, but hardly a happy ending.

So, as you can see, the plot of The Kite Runner is almost Shakespearean, full of betrayals and daddy issues and blood that won’t wash off, set against the backdrop of war games that are larger than all of us. Amir only properly understands his privilege (wealth, security) in retrospect, narrating the story from the early 2000s (yes, September 11 comes in, towards the end). As such, it’s not until quite late in life – too late, you might say – that he can seek redemption and atone for the way he treated his childhood friend. I read a review from Sarah Smith in The Guardian that said The Kite Runner started off strong, but Hosseini seemed too focused on fully redeeming his protagonist, which led to too many wild coincidences that allowed Amir to face his demons. I reckon that’s spot on; Hosseini lost me around the time he revealed Assef as the local Taliban honcho holding Sohrab.

Like Amir, Hosseini was born in Afghanistan but left as a young boy, only to return in 2003. Of course, every journalist he’s ever spoken to has asked him “how autobiographical The Kite Runner is” (as though that’s the only interesting thing about a man of his background). Hosseini has said “When I say some of it is me, then people look unsatisfied. The parallels are pretty obvious, but… I left a few things ambiguous because I wanted to drive the book clubs crazy.”

Ah, yes, the book clubs! The Kite Runner sold pretty well upon its initial release in hardback, but it wasn’t until it was released in paperback (the preferred format of book clubs) that it really exploded. It hit the bestseller lists in late 2004, and stayed there for two years. It’s still widely beloved, but not universally. The American Library Association’s statistics show that it was one of the most-frequently banned and challenged books of 2008 (with parents trying to remove it from school libraries due to its “offensive language” and explicit content). Plus, a lot of Afghan American readers have expressed anger at Hosseini’s depiction of Pashtuns as oppressors and Hazaras as the oppressed.

Obviously, I’m not really in a position to comment on that last point. What I can tell you is that The Kite Runner is a good read, and a newly-resonant one (given what has happened in Kabul these past couple of months), but there are too many convenient coincidences and foreseeable twists for it to really get my motor running. Go ahead and read it if you’re interested, but steel yourself for those trigger warnings I mentioned!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Kite Runner:

  • “a good gift to give! came in amazon condition” – leeann
  • “The writing is astonishingly bad. Clunky, awkward, amateurish. I winced and gringed all the way through.” – Greta F.
  • “I keep seeing the word “redemptive” used, but there is no redemption here. The main character attempts to restore hope and order to all the awfulness he causes by flying a kite. That’s not redemptive. That’s a hobby.” – Gregory A. Alan

13 Books By Nobel Prize Winners

Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock, you probably know at least something about Nobel Prizes. They’re five prizes awarded each year to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. Most people associate Nobel Prizes with the science-y winners – your Marie Curies and your Albert Einsteins – or the Peace prize winners – like Obama and the World Food Programme, but booklovers know that the Nobel Prizes for Literature are awarded to writers who have changed the world, too. Here are thirteen books by Nobel Prize winners.

13 Books By Nobel Prize Winners - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
No Nobel Prizes for figuring out that if you buy a book through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights - Olga Tokarczuk - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 2018

Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2018 “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”, according to the judge’s comments. That saw her book Flights (the English translation, by Jennifer Croft, having been published the same year) fly off the shelves. It’s a fragmentary novel that weaves together reflections on mortality, motion, and migration.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1954

Hemingway got the Nobel Prize gong in 1954 “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”. I can’t say I saw that mastery on display in The Sun Also Rises (and maybe the judges couldn’t either, which is why they didn’t shout it out in their comments). To me, it was just a book about a bloke drinking with his buddies in Spain, moping about having his dick blown off and using it as an excuse to avoid the woman he loves, but others have called it a “poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation”. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1982

Gabriel García Márquez is the Big Daddy of Latin American magical realism, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”. One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a bit of a slog for your average reader (ahem, me), but even so, we can see how it’s come to define the genre. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

Death At Intervals by José Saramago

Death At Intervals - Jose Saramago - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1998

José Saramago wrote the kind of novels that your unabashedly irreverent grandpa would have written if he had the literary chops. The Nobel Prize committee described him in their comments as a writer “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”. Take, for instance, Death At Intervals (or Death With Interruptions in some territories): a slim little novel about an unnamed country where Death inexplicably goes on strike, and nobody dies for months on end, until Death decides its time to speak for herself… Read my full review of Death At Intervals here.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1949

William Faulkner didn’t believe in any “great writer” nonsense. He once said “Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory.” So, when he got the Nobel Prize “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”, it was all raw talent, baby! As I Lay Dying is a weird little book, but rich. It’s a definitive Southern Gothic novel, with a family transporting their dead mother’s body to her desired resting place, each of them narrating the journey in turn. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1976

Of all the Nobel Prize winners in this list, Saul Bellow is the one that flummoxed me the most. The judges’ comments cited his “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work”, but… I don’t see it! Hats off to you if you can, but the protagonist of The Adventures Of Augie March is one of the most baffling characters I’ve ever encountered. He just never DOES anything! Simply wanders about, waiting for life to happen to him! Maybe if I’d been part of Bellow’s “contemporary culture” it might’ve made more sense, but as it stands, nah. Sorry. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Augie March here.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro occupies an interesting middle-ground amongst the recent Nobel Prize winners. He’s a British writer, but he was raised by immigrant parents still deeply connected to their culture and spoke Japanese at home. He writes Great Novels about Big Themes, that are also highly readable and get made into high-grossing films. According to the Prize judges, he’s a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. In my reading experience, there’s no better representation of that than I found in An Artist Of The Floating World, a criminally underrated book by Ishiguro that sadly barely gets a mention. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Kim - Rudyard Kipling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1907

In their comments, the Nobel judges said they gave Rudyard Kipling the gong “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author”. I can’t help but suspect they were thinking more of his poetry and his children’s stories than Kim when they said that. There’s nothing particularly originally imaginative or virile about a picaresque-cum-spy novel featuring a young boy who has greatness thrust upon him and comes to realise that spiritual equilibrium is worth more than material wealth, as far as I can tell. Read my full review of Kim here.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Murphy - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1969

Samuel Beckett had a lot going on in his life. He was stabbed by a pimp in Paris shortly before the publication of Murphy, for one. When the Nobel judges awarded him the prize “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”, it smacks to me of the grown-ups trying to prove they’re still Hip and With It by inviting one of the cool kids to their dinner party. Beckett is probably better known now for his plays than this weird mash-up of a novel, and that’s probably not such a bad thing. Read my full review of Murphy here.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1993

Here’s one I can get behind! Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality” (according to the Nobel judges), absolutely understood the assignment. Beloved is a powerful, if rather uncomfortable and unsettling, story of the inherited trauma of slavery told through the lives of one haunted family. Her other novels also explored race and gender long before they became diversity buzzwords in the publishing industry; Morrison was so good they simply couldn’t ignore her.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 2007

Doris Lessing seems to have gone out of favour a bit now, which is a shame. “That epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”, according to the Nobel Prize judges, wrote a heck of a book in The Golden Notebook. It’s intriguingly meta, laying out the four notebooks of a struggling writer who’s on track for a mental breakdown, until she finds the key to her novel, and her reunification of the self, in a fifth notebook (which is, you guessed it, golden). Read my full review of The Golden Notebook here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1962

I was actually really surprised by how damn good The Grapes Of Wrath was, though I clearly shouldn’t have been. John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, and that’s a bang-on description of this book. It charts the journey of a family of Dust Bowl migrants as things go from bad, to worse, to worser for them in their effort to find a new life for themselves away from debt and misery. The ending is a gut-punch the likes of which I’ve never encountered in a book, before or since. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

Lord Of The Flies - William Golding - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1983

Look, I know lots of traditional literary types froth over William Golding. English teachers would surely be lost without him, a yawning black hole in their year-in-year-out syllabus where Lord Of The Flies should be. The Nobel committee awarded him the prize for literature, “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today”. I call bullshit. Perhaps my opinion suffered for only having read this book as an adult (no idea where I was the day that it was rolled out in my own high school English studies), but I can’t shake my suspicion that the committee were having a laugh. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

Stay tuned! The 2021 Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on 7 October 2021.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an outpouring of grief for an author who passed away like that I saw after Toni Morrison passed in August 2019. My Instagram was flooded with quotes and remembrances to the Great American Novelist, and the book referenced most often in this eulogy-en-masse was Beloved. I’d heard a lot about it prior to then, of course, but never actually read it… until now. Yes, Keeper Upperers, I have finally read Morrison’s most-beloved 1987 novel.

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Beloved here.
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First, a bit of history (because you can’t read or understand Beloved without its history): the story was inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner. She was a slave who escaped from Kentucky and fled to the free state of Ohio in 1856. When U.S. marshals busted into her cabin and arrested her, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they found that she had killed her own two-year-old daughter and was attempting to kill her other children. The motive, as we understand it today, was to prevent her children being returned to a life of slavery – a fate worse than death. Morrison came across Garner’s story in an old newspaper article, and reproduced it later in a compilation of black history in 1974. But Morrison wasn’t done with Garner’s story; it was the seed that grew into Beloved.

Beloved is dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” – a reference to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade. Morrison lamented the fact that there was no true memorial to the deaths of those men, women, and children, and so Beloved became her own personal tribute. Upon accepting the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award in 1988, she said: “There’s no small bench by the side of the road. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”

The story of Beloved begins in 1873, with Sethe – a formerly enslaved woman – and her daughter Denver living at 124 Bluestone Road, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe’s older sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away years ago. The house is haunted, see, by the memories and inherited trauma of Sethe’s past, which are personified in the ghost of the child she buried. The child was never formally named, but buried beneath a tombstone with the only phrase Sethe could remember from her Christian funeral: Beloved. (She would have had “Dearly Beloved” engraved, only her “services” to the engraver only purchased her ten minutes of time to carve a name.) Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law and a fellow escaped slave, also lived at 124 Bluestone Road, but she died shortly after the boys ran away, eight years before Beloved begins. The early chapters of the novel sketch out this rough history, and Morrison’s capacity to take your breath away with her blunt insight is on full display.

[The plantation] never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.

Beloved (Page 7)

Morrison doesn’t just give you one inciting incident: she gives you two. First is the arrival of Paul D, another enslaved man from Sweet Home (the plantation where Sethe, Baby Suggs, and several other characters were ‘owned’). A romance kindles quickly between him and Sethe, but the ghost of Beloved freaks him the heck out and he banishes her with a lot of shouting and table-flipping. It takes a bit of doing, but eventually he wins Denver over, and the three of them attend a local carnival as a family, happy to be rid of the ghost that haunted them.

When they return to 124 Bluestone Road, however, a young woman (yes, this is the second inciting incident, hold onto your hats, people!) is waiting for them on the front step. She calls herself – durn, durn, durn – Beloved. Sethe is charmed by the young woman and takes her in, despite Paul D’s repeated warnings that it could only lead to trouble. Denver has no problems believing that this Beloved is her deceased sister manifest, and quickly develops an intense bond with her.

Naturally, the manifest ghost starts causing all kinds of problems. First, she bewitches Denver. Then, she charms Paul D into a bonk. He’s disgusted with himself, and triggered by the memories of Sweet Home that the sex with Beloved recalls, and (somewhat inexplicably) he decides the best way to deal with it all is to get Sethe knocked up. Only, when he tells his friends about it, one of them – Stamp Paid – reveals Sethe’s deepest, darkest secret (uncool, but kind of warranted).

You ready for the big spoiler? It’s coming, ready or not!

Sethe killed her infant. After she’d escaped Sweet Home and made it to Baby Sugg’s house at 124 Bluestone Road, four horsemen came looking for her with bad intentions. Hearing that they were clip-clopping up the street, Sethe ran to the woodshed where her children were and tried to kill them all, but Beloved was the only one she had time for. Eeek!

Paul D confronts Sethe, and ultimately leaves her, saying that her love for her children is “too thick” for him to deal with. She holds firm in her position that “thin love is no love” and that she did the right thing in killing Beloved. She has all the evidence she needs; Beloved has come back to her.

After Paul D runs off, Beloved consumes Sethe’s every waking thought and movement. She hardly eats, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger, eventually appearing to be pregnant. Denver is kind of freaked out by all of this (understandably), and braves her fear of the Cincinnati streets to go out in seek of help. The local women come to her aid, to exorcise Beloved – figuring, naturally, that she’s a ghost who’ll flee at the whiff of some holy water – coincidentally at the same time as the landlord of 124 Bluestone Road comes trotting up on his horse.

It’s all too much for Sethe, who is big-time triggered by the memory of those horsemen coming for her and her children to return them to Sweet Home, and she has a breakdown. Beloved disappears, and Sethe never recovers. She remains bed-ridden for the rest of her life, and Paul D returns to find her a shell of her former self. Over the years, everyone forgets about Beloved, until all traces of her are gone.

Phew! Do you need a second? I sure did, after I finished reading Beloved.

So, what was the character Beloved? A ghost? A demon? That question is the heart of this story, and probably a big part of the reason it has captured so much popular and academic attention. Morrison told us plainly that she was the daughter that Sethe killed, but we can all kind of tell that she’s also a symbol, a manifestation of the repressed trauma of slavery.

Beloved smacks of a book that needs to be re-read over and over again to be appreciated fully. I wanted to love it outright; everyone said that I would and that I should… but I didn’t, really. In fairness, lockdown probably wasn’t the right time for me to read it. There’s some future me who will re-read it and find it completely wonderful, but the present me can only concede that it was a brilliant but not enjoyable read. A lot of Morrison’s cleverness didn’t really “click” until later, writing up this review (e.g., the Schoolteacher from Sweet Home was never named, but all of the former slaves and children of slaves were, a very interesting subversion and re-claiming of the narrative). Basically, I didn’t have the brain space for Beloved, which I regret – and I’d recommend you don’t pick it up until you do.

Luckily, a lot of people far wiser than me read it when their brains weren’t turned to mush by the Delta variant. Beloved was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award, and it was ranked as the best work of American fiction (by literary critics for the New York Times) from 1981-2006.

Incredibly, despite what it has to teach students about history and about writing craft, Beloved has been banned from five U.S. schools since 2007 (let alone all the times it was challenged and banned before that). Apparently, some parents don’t want their precious progeny exposed to “bestiality, infanticide, sex, and violence”, even in fiction. Every great book, it seems, has a long history of being banned and censored, and Beloved is no exception.

If you’d asked me before I started writing this review, I would have said – with certainty – that Beloved was universally… well, beloved. It’s only since I started Googling possible reasons for my own ambivalence towards it – it just wasn’t a fun read, you know? – that I encountered some pretty heavy criticism. It’s been called sentimental, sensational, overwritten, and overblown. But, despite that criticism (and my own mixed feelings), I must acknowledge that Beloved is a book that has taken on mythical proportions in cultural significance. Its importance in representing the impact of inherited trauma, correcting the false narrative around slavery, and giving voice to African Americans cannot be denied… regardless of one person’s experience of reading it.

4 Moving Books About 9/11

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, 9/11. Naturally, anniversaries are tough for survivors and those significantly impacted by such events, so my heart goes out to them. It’s also given me cause to look back and think about how we write and read about what happened that day. I’ve always been of the opinion that we need time and distance from something to write about it in a way that truly resonates (which is why I’ve avoided reading any of the rushed-to-market books about the Trump presidency or coronavirus). Very few books about 9/11, so far, have moved past the informational and into the emotional. Perhaps one day they’ll be as common as historical WWII novels, but for now, here’s a short list of truly moving books about 9/11.

4 Moving Books About 9/11 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Although Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close doesn’t take place at the time of the 9/11 attacks, the impact of them echoes throughout Foer’s novel. It’s narrated by nine-year-old Oskar, whose father was killed in the attacks one year prior. Oskar discovers a key in the bottom of a vase, presumably once belonging to his father, and he undertakes a quest all across New York City to discover what it unlocks. Oskar is traumatised by the events of 9/11, he experiences depression and insomnia (which he describes as “wearing heavy boots”), and his search for closure made manifest in the key gives him purpose to go on each day. Bring tissues!

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding Edge - Thomas Pynchon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thomas Pynchon isn’t exactly known for his moving prose – heck, he’s not even known for being particularly readable – but Bleeding Edge is a book about 9/11 with an interesting take. Pynchon takes the already-surreal events of that day and transposes them onto a dream-like detective novel, with poignant parallels that continue to resonate even as time goes on. The story follows an ex-certified fraud examiner (from the brilliantly-named agency Nail ‘Em and Tail ‘Em), as she chases down conspirators making the most of the dot-com bubble burst, navigates separation from her ex-husband and manages custody of their two children, all as the threat of 9/11 looms on the horizon.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Normally, books about 9/11 (or, indeed, any tragic event) have a sympathetic narrator at their heart, someone you can root for and cry for. Not so in My Year Of Rest And Relaxation! Moshfegh has created a character so unlikeable that her Goodreads reviews are plagued with complaints. The unnamed narrator – beautiful, rich, entirely self-absorbed – decides, around the time of September 2000, that she’s had enough of the world and she’d like to sleep for an entire year. Sure enough, she locks herself up in her apartment with enough sleeping pills to take down a rhinoceros. She, and the city (well, the world), are in for a rude awakening when she finally emerges.

The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett M. Graff

This is the only non-fiction book I’ve included in this list of books about 9/11, because it’s the only one I’ve found that has the same emotional arcs and resonance as fiction. Most non-fiction books on this subject are quite dry, I’ve found, but The Only Plane In The Sky – being an oral history – absolutely bleeds humanity and meaning. Graff pulls together hundreds of transcripts and documents to tell the stories of first responders, witnesses, government officials, survivors, and loved ones, painting a comprehensive portrait of the day that changed their lives, and the world. If you’re feeling particularly brave and emotionally stalwart-y, you can listen to the audiobook, which won many best-of awards last year.

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