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A Complete(ish) Beginner’s Guide to Really Old Poems

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem dating back to the 14th century. It’s the oldest book on The List, and the only poem on there too. I’d heard about Inferno (the first “book” of The Divine Comedy) all my life, but I had only the vaguest idea what it was actually about. As I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s a whole bunch of really famous, really old poems that I’ve never read. I’ve bluffed my way through conversations about The Iliad, and snoozed through a film adaptation of Beowulf, but for the most part those poems remained a mystery to me. I figured I couldn’t be the only one, so I set about learning everything I could about them, all so I could bring you this: the complete(ish) beginner’s guide to really old poems.

A Complete(ish) Beginner's Guide to Really Old Poems - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Approx. 2,000 BC)

You thought The Divine Comedy was old? We’re talking really old here today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, a poem that old has been rehashed and rebooted so many times that we have no idea who wrote it anymore. At one point, five different stories were combined into a single epic poem and immortalised in the “Old Babylonian” version (scratched into a few tablets in the 18th century BC), and that remains the oldest surviving version of The Epic of Gilgamesh .

I’m assuming you’re not exactly up on your Mesopotamian history (I’m sure not), so the story might be a bit hard to follow, but it’s so crazy it’s worth bearing with me. This bloke, Gilgamesh, was the king of Uruk (an ancient city in modern-day Iraq). He was a bit of a dick to his people, so the gods created Enkidu, a “wild man” that could only be civilised through a crazy fuck fest with a local harlot (I’m not kidding). Once he got that out of the way, Enkidu challenged Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh won, but they had a laugh about it and an ancient Mesopotamian beer together afterwards. They became great friends, and worked out a plan to kill Humbaba The Terrible. See, Humbaba was guarding the sacred tree in the Cedar forest, and they wanted to chop it down to do some home improvement projects (or something). Meanwhile, the goddess Ishtar was pissed that Gilgamesh rejected her booty call, so she sent down the Bull of Heaven to sort him out… but he and his new buddy Enkidu took him down, too. Killer team, these two!

Anyway, the gods were pretty shitty that their “wild man” went off script like that, so they sentenced him to death. Gilgamesh was really cut up about losing his bro, so he wandered off into the woods to try and find the “secret to eternal life”. He looked long and hard, but only found some old dude who fed him annoying platitudes about death being part of life. Boo. Gilgamesh thought he might be onto something with a magic flower for a minute, but then a snake came along and ate it, so he was back to square one. In the end, he returned home and became a magnificent ruler, dying of old age.

The Epic of Gilgamesh hits the trifecta of being super-old (indeed, the oldest!), a crazy good epic story (see above), and pretty damn significant in literary terms. We knew almost nothing about the Sumerians (who lived in that area and wrote the thing all that time ago) prior to the discovery of these tablets. Plus, a lot of the story mirrors or echoes stories from the Bible, which wasn’t written until much later. Great floods, divine punishment – is The Epic of Gilgamesh corroborating evidence for these stories, or did the Christians just blatantly rip them off? Academic debate rages on…

You can get The Epic of Gilgamesh here.

The Iliad & The Odyssey (Approx. 900 BC)

We have to skip ahead quite a way to find what we can call the oldest surviving work of Western literature. Long after the Sumerians chipped away at tablets, the Ancient Greeks jumped on the bandwagon and started committing stories to written poetry. The Iliad and The Odyssey are widely attributed to our new friend Homer, but he was old and blind and never wrote anything down, and the stories had been on the Ancient Greek grapevine for quite a while, so it’s kind of controversial to definitively say that he “wrote” them. Either way, these poems were #1 on the charts in Ancient Greece, and their influence on art, literature and culture continues to this day.

The Iliad is an epic poem depicting a few weeks in the final year of the Trojan War, when there was big beef between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles (yep, like that thing on your foot, same one). The poem is super long, though, and it pulls in all kinds of history and prophesies for the future and stuff, so it basically tells the story of the whole war as well as a bunch of Ancient Greek legends. It was followed by The Odyssey, a sort of sequel, written not long after. This might be one of the few instances in history where the sequel is sexier than the original, because The Odyssey follows the story of Odysseus trying to get home after a big one out at Troy. His wife – Penelope – thought he was dead, so we also get the story of how she fought off all the fellas trying to slide into her DMs now that she’s single again. Both of these poems were originally composed in what’s now called Homeric Greek (Homer was such a big deal, he got a dialect named after him), and likely floated around in oral traditions (i.e., slam poets performing it on the street for cash) for quite a while before anyone could find a pen.

A couple extra fun facts for you: The Odyssey was kind of the first feminist poem, because women actually got to speak and make decisions and stuff (Penelope was a bad bitch, she totally ran things). And we refer to long journeys as “odysseys” now, which – you guessed it – we get from the poem. So as you can see, these poems – and our mate Homer – are a Big DealTM.

You can get a gorgeous leather-bound copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey together here.

The Mahābhārata (Approx. 900 BC)

Around the same time, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India emerged: the Mahābhārata. Indians generally attribute the poem to Vyasa (a Sanskrit name meaning, literally, “compiler”). He is revered as a deity in most Hindu traditions, being one of the Chiranjivins (immortals), and there is a festival (Guru Purnima) held in his honour each year. Funnily enough, he’s also a central character in this epic poem he wrote – fancy that! Academics and experts have tried their best to work out an accurate history of the poem (epics like that don’t just appear, you know, they are composed in bits and pieces over time). As best we can tell, the oldest written parts still in existence date back to about the 5th century BC, but the poem itself emerged at least a few centuries before that.

The Mahābhārata has many different translations, the most common of which describes it as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”. It tells the story of the Kuruksetra War, in great, great detail. Two cousins got into a hectic fight about who should be next in line to the throne, and next thing you know there’s a great whopping battle and a whole bunch of casualties and everyone heads into the afterlife. I know most epic poems are long (it’s kind of their defining characteristic), but get this: it is the longest epic poem still known to us today (and the longest one ever written, as far as we know). Unsurprisingly, then, in addition to the big war, it covers all kinds of other shit: philosophy, religion, royalty, family conflict, friendship, death, and everything else you can imagine. The longest version has about 200,000 lines, plus a bunch of parts that aren’t actually poetry at all (“prose passages”). That’s ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined. So if you want to give this one a crack, you’re going to need to allot a lot of time.

In terms of literary significance, ancient Indian texts often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West (we’re too busy figuring out whether Homer actually wrote shit down himself or whether someone else did it for him). Chances are, you hadn’t even heard of The Mahābhārata until right now. You might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita though (“the song of the Lord” for Hindu Indians), so take heart: the Gita is actually an extract from The Mahābhārata. In that sense, in terms of significance, this epic poem is on par with the Holy Bible. Let that sink in.

You can get The Mahābhārata in full here, or the Bhagavad Gita section here.

The Aeneid (19-29 BC)

Yes, a lot of stuff happened poetry-wise over the following centuries, but we can skip over it all to catch up to the Aeneid: an epic poem of Ancient Rome written by a bloke called Virgil (and it’s finally recent enough that we can lock down to a relative certainty who wrote what, yay!). Virgil was king shit when it came to poetry in Ancient Rome; he wrote this one and a handful of others that pretty much defined this period in literature.

As far as The Aeneid goes, it took him ten years to write it, so he worked bloody hard to get it right. It’s actually modelled off the Iliad and the Odyssey, so it’s stacks on stacks of brilliance. The Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan guy called Aeneas; he actually featured in the Iliad too, so it’s kind of like Virgil’s homage to Homer (and maybe an attempt to outdo him, just a little bit). The poem is split in half, and each section split into six (so twelve “books” all up). The first half covers Aeneas getting the fuck out of Troy after the Greeks came around and destroyed the joint (remember that wooden horse?). He and his Trojan buddies sail to Italy, with the larrikin idea of founding a new empire (Rome). Aeneas has a bit of a rough trot with curses and weather events and stuff. He even finds the love of a good woman, only for her to kill herself when he sails off to get on with his Rome-founding. When he finally makes it to Italy, he randomly descends into the underworld, and has a chat with his dead Dad. Finally, he comes back up and they’re in Italy ready to do some founding, and everything’s grand…

… until Aeneas kills one of the local herdsman’s pets, and there’s some drama over whether he’s an eligible suitor for the princess of the day. This kicks off a war, and Aeneas has to get his arse in gear to pull some troops together. There’s some nail-biting back-and-forth between the warring factions, lots of people die (which seems to be a common theme in these poems), but ultimately Aeneas and his posse are victorious. And Rome was built in a day! (Just kidding…)

Virgil actually died on a research trip to Greece while he was editing The Aeneid. He told everyone to burn the manuscript when he died, but no one listened – so even though he spent ten years working on it, we’ve ended up with some half-arsed epic poem that the writer probably wasn’t even happy with, and we hold it up as one of the greatest pieces of Latin literature ever written. It’s a cornerstone of the Western canon, and just about everyone who learns Latin is still forced to memorise at least part of it. Its influence can be seen in almost everything that came after it (including the following poems listed here)…

You can pick up a great translation of The Aeneid here.




Beowulf (975 AD)

Now we’re back on our own side of the Christ divide, and onto texts that were actually written in English. Beowulf is the oldest one of those (though the date of its actual composition is still up for debate, and nerdy academics get really fired up about it). Unfortunately, we have no bloody idea who actually wrote it, so the nerds literally just refer to them as “the Beowulf poet” (very creative).

So, there’s this pub in Denmark, right? (Seriously, this is how it actually starts). All the king’s soldiers have beers there after they’re done fighting battles. They sing, trade gifts, and have a jolly good time. They’re not very considerate of their neighbours when leaving the premises, though, and in this case their neighbour is the swampland demon Grendel. He gets the shits with their carry-on, so he goes on a killing spree every night until they quieten down. Then, a bloke living in Geats (that’s Beowulf!) hears about the big demon and figures he could take him, so he sails to Denmark.

This Beowulf character is actually pretty good; he manages to defeat Grendel and tear off his arm, even though he’d been out drinking with the boys all the night before. The Danes are all very grateful, but Grendel’s mother is really ticked off about her dead son, so she comes seeking revenge. She doesn’t kill Beowulf straight away, but she kills one of the king’s mates and runs away, figuring he’ll come chasing after her (which he does – men are stupid). She and Beowulf have this crazy underwater battle, and he manages to come out a winner again. Everybody’s happy!

You’d think that would be the end, but no. Beowulf heads home to Geats and ends up becoming king. Everything’s chill for a while, until some kid wakes up a dragon, and Beowulf ends up having to sort that out too. He’s gone a bit soft in his old age, and he dies of a whopping great dragon bite. His people burn him on a pyre, and he’s buried with a bunch of treasure.

There’s only one surviving original manuscript and it is literally about 1,000 years old. It nearly burnt to a crisp in a fire in 1731, so you can bet they’re keeping a bloody close eye on it now. J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with it, and literary criticism of Beowulf pretty much began with him. It’s still super-popular and modern versions and adaptations are being released all the time (remember the movie with Angelina Jolie a few years ago?), moreso than any of the other poems on this list.

You can get a highly-acclaimed version (and even a bilingual edition) of Beowulf here.

The Divine Comedy (1321 AD)

And here we are, back where I began with this week’s review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem split into three parts (Inferno – the most famous – then Purgatorio and Paradiso), describing Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, and eventual arrival in Heaven. It is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature. The Divine Comedy was so influential that it pretty much single-handedly cemented the Tuscan dialect (the one that Dante wrote in) as the official Italian language. Can you imagine a book deciding what language a country speaks today? Crazy!

Dante was so heavily influenced by Virgil (remember him from the Aeneid?) that he made him one of the characters, alongside himself, in the poem. Dante and Virgil (the characters) take a nice little trip down into the underworld, making their way through increasingly awful circles of hell until they get to the center where the worst sinners hang out. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then hike up the Mountain of Purgatory, where’s it pretty much more of the same but with less skin-flaying; everyone’s just hanging around praying, trying to get into Heaven. Finally, Virgil buggers off, and Dante meets up with the chick he had a crush on back in the mortal realm. She guides him through Heaven, and there’s lots of praising the Lord and stuff. Nice, eh?

When it first came out, The Divine Comedy was super-popular and everyone thought it was great… but then the Enlightenment happened and everyone just sort of forgot about it for a while. It didn’t come back into fashion until the 1800s, but it’s remained on the radar ever since. All kinds of writers and poets (T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, etc.) show evidence of its influence in their work. People keep re-translating the original, and there are new versions published all the time. It has inspired paintings, sculptures, films, video games, and just about every other media we have. Just goes to show: everything old is new again, eventually!

You can get the complete version (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) in English here, or a bilingual edition (English-Italian) here.

Paradise Lost (1667)

And, finally, almost four millennia from where we began back in ancient Mesopotamia, we land on Paradise Lost: an epic poem written by John Milton in 17th century England. It is usually discussed right alongside The Divine Comedy, because they cover off a lot of the same stuff, and are relatively close together in time (compared to the gaps between the others, anyway).

Milton’s poem starts in the middle of the action: Satan and a bunch of his rebel angel buddies have been banished to Hell, and he’s trying to get the rabble into some kind of order so they can get on with the demon business of corrupting all of Mankind. Satan draws the short straw, and has to make his way back up onto earth to find the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are hanging out. He transforms himself into a snake, cons Eve into eating one stinking apple and – just like that – all of humanity is doomed. Job done, says Satan. He leaves Adam and Eve alone to bone, and trots triumphantly back to Hell.

When he gets there, he has a big humble brag about what a great job he’s done taking down Paradise, but he craps on a bit too long and, before he can finish, he and all his mates transform into snakes permanently. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Adam and Eve have gone crawling to God. Adam’s having hallucinations about what’s going to happen to Mankind now that they’ve cocked everything up, and he is freaking out. God kicks them out, telling them to go sit outside and think about what they’ve done, and that’s pretty much where humanity is at now. The end.

It might seem like your basic Christian story, just throwing a bit of glitter on some Bible stories and calling it a day, but Paradise Lost has sparked generations of debate and controversy. Everyone seems to agree that it’s brilliant, but there have been some almighty arguments about what Milton was trying to say and whether we’re supposed to agree with what he said. Paradise Lost, like the others, continues to be seriously influential in art, music and literature today. In fact, you’ve probably watched a movie or listened to an album or looked at a piece of art influenced by Milton’s masterpiece, and just not realised it.

You can get the complete text of Paradise Lost here.

Phew! We made it. There are, of course, many significant and brilliant poems that occurred in the intervening years of this timeline, but these are the big ones – the ones that are probably going to come up in conversation or at a pub trivia night. Now, at the very least, your eyes won’t glaze over completely.

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Have you read any of these really old poems? Has this guide inspired you to seek any of them out? Let me know in the comments (or share over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy is special in the context of this project for a few reasons. It’s the oldest title on The List – Dante began writing it in 1308, and completed it in 1320. It’s also one of the very few not originally written in English. Dante was one of the first writers of the Middle Ages to produce work on a serious subject (the redemption of humanity and all that) in the low and vulgar Italian – normally, that kind of thing would be written in high-falootin’ Latin. And, finally, it’s the only poem (albeit a novel-length “narrative poem”) on the current List. So, this review is really one of a kind!

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Divine Comedy is a quasi-autobiographical poem (that reads like a book for the most part) about Dante’s “journey” through the three realms of the dead (Hell, Purgatory, Heaven). It makes sense, then, that it’s divided into three parts, each containing 33 cantos and an introduction (a canto is something like a chapter, I think – I don’t know much about poetry, don’t @ me).

This is the unabridged Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed translation. Apparently, it’s perfect for readers who are completely unfamiliar with Italian (ding, ding, ding, that’s me!). I’d like to pretend that I chose this copy specifically for that reason, but really this is the only complete copy that I could find while trawling the secondhand bookstores. First-time readers should be prepared, regardless of what version you pick, that most of the reading is in the footnotes. Seriously, there’s one at the end of basically every line. You’ll need two bookmarks for this bad boy.

A fun fact: Dante originally called this work “The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not in character”. So, would have known right from the outset that he is both petty and hilarious: an excellent combination. It ended up getting shortened to just “The Comedy”, and then a bunch of fanboys added the “Divine” later.

Hell (“Inferno”) is – obviously – the best part. Each sin gets its own “circle”, and some particularly brutal form of poetic justice. My favourite one was the fortune tellers forced to walk around with their heads fixed on backwards. According to Dante, they’re unable to see what is ahead for all eternity, because that’s what they’d tried to do as mortals. Burn!

“We went with the ten Demons: ah, hideous company! but, ‘In Church with saints, and with guzzlers in the tavern.”

I think, secretly, the reason that everyone loves Inferno so much is that traversing through Hell gives Dante ample opportunity to just hang shit on everyone who had pissed him off in his life. It’s proof that humans haven’t changed that much in the last 700 years, we’re all just petty sacks of shit. The (many) footnotes give helpful insights as to what Roberto Luigi or whoever did to piss Dante off so much that he stuck him in the third circle of Hell. Good on Dante, I say! If people wanted you to write nice things about them, they should have treated you better.

There were a lot of helpful diagrams included with this edition, and I referred back to them a lot. Given that I received no religious education outside of “say please and thank you and don’t talk with your mouth full”, it was hard for me to keep track of who went where in Hell, and why. The explanatory notes crapped on a lot about geography and astronomy though (“the position of this particular mountain relative to the position of the sun and the appearance of the constellation Aries at exactly 7PM blah blah blah…”); I guess it’s all very important to serious grown-up readers, but I let it fly right over my head. I’m here for a good time, not a geography lesson.




I knocked over Inferno pretty quickly, and it was great. I could see why people bang on about it so much, but… well, the rest of The Divine Comedy was a bit of a slog, to be honest. Things started to drag from the start of Purgatory (“Purgatorio”): there was less humour, less drama, and it was hard to stay awake.

My lack of religious education started to really trip me up around that point, too. It seems that a bunch of sinners end up on Purgatory Mountain as well (I thought that was what the Hell Pit was for?), and they’ve got to sort their shit out as they climb up towards the Garden of Eden. Purgatory is pretty much Hell with less burning and more praying. The Hell Pit didn’t sound like much fun, I suppose (too much hard labour and skin sloughing off and ice lakes and stuff – reconsider your need to travel), so if you can hang out with all the gluttonous perverts on Purgatory Mountain, that would probably be the better deal.

Anyway, Dante – having schlepped through all the circles of Hell, sidestepping the demons – works his way up Purgatory Mountain, where every man wanted to stop and chat and ask Dante to put them in his prayers. Great. It turns out, he did it all so he could get to the top (“Paradiso”) and hang out with Beatrice, the dead girl he used to have the hots for. Only, when he gets there, she starts yelling at him and telling him he ain’t shit and he got up to too much sinning back in the mortal realm to ever be with a girl like her. Wtf?

I was very over The Divine Comedy by that point, and I had no time for Beatrice at all. I couldn’t work out why Dante was so into her; after she was done yelling, she just stood around smiling and coughing a lot. She was also a bit up herself; she literally said to him “don’t look at me, I’m so beautiful you’ll die, mate”. There were also no sexy bits.

All of this is to say I completely glazed over for most of Paradiso. It started to read like a medieval Wikipedia article, and the footnotes stretched on for pages at a time.

“… the union of the divine and human natures in Christ is the point which Dante declares will be as clear to souls in bliss as ‘the initial truth which man believeth,’ or is as clear to Justinian as that ‘every contradiction is both false and true.’ Now ‘the initial truth which man believeth’ is not a generic term for axiomatic truth, but a specific reference to the ‘law of contradictories’ on which the whole system of Aristotelian logic is build up. It asserts that the propositions: This is so and this is not so cannot both be true in the same sense and at the same time. And it follows immediately from this fundamental axiom, that of the two propositions “all A’s are B’s” and “some A’s are B’s” or of the two propositions “no A’s are B’s” and “some A’s are B’s”, one must be true and the other false. They cannot both be true or both false in the same sense at the same time…” – an actual extract from the footnotes, snore.

I think the thrust of it all was that humans need to pipe down with all of their “thinking” and “reasoning” because God has this shit worked out already and we shouldn’t fuck with it. But humans are probably too dumb to understand that anyway, so… just carry on, I guess? Paradiso had started to feel like a Where’s Wally, with my eyes desperately scanning every page for a phrase that made any sense at all. I was so, so grateful to be done with it – I don’t think that’s what Dante was going for, but here we are.

My tl;dr summary of The Divine Comedy overall is this: Inferno is hilarious and great, Purgatorio is just okay, Paradiso is a heap of shit. Read Inferno, and don’t bother with the rest (unless you need a sleep aid).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Divine Comedy:

  • “I never got this book. Did I order it?” – Dean
  • “well bound and looks great under my Dante bust.” – Robert W.
  • “This book really drags… it’s very long and redundant. The three places are all the same and paradise is anticlimatic. The main caracter is anoying. it’s confusing. the imagery is hard to imagion and to understand. The best part was his trip threw hell so I see why that’s the part people reference the most. I wouldn’t read it again and I do not recommend it and I do not see how reading it makes you smart or enlightened. It board me.” – porscha

 

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Right On, Sister: The Best “Bad Women” In Fiction

For too long, complex narrative arcs have been distributed unevenly. Our evil villains and deeply flawed protagonists have been almost exclusively male. When women do get a look-in, it’s often tokenistic or cliche (the trope of the overbearing mother, written in solely to justify a young male character’s anti-social behaviour, for instance). Women, the “gentler sex”, are almost always portrayed as merciful and nurturing. When they aren’t, their tactics for evil are usually reduced to “feminine wiles” – only men have been allowed to be violent, cruel, and unfeeling. However, with growing awareness of that imbalance has come a growing demand for “bad women” in literature: women who are mean, ugly, ungrateful, indulgent, deviant, and different. Just this week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Girl On The Train, narrated by a notoriously unreliable and unlikeable black-out alcoholic. I love seeing this particular pendulum swing back.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that all fiction prior to the 21st century was a barren landscape of retiring women. In fact, some of my favourite bad women are buried way back in the canon of the classics. It’s just that they were so infrequent as to be almost invisible. Finally, some of them are starting to see the light of day. In celebration of that, I’ve put together a list: the best “bad women” in fiction.

The Best Bad Women in Fiction - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Miss Trunchbull (Matilda – Roald Dahl)

This is the first example that I can recall from a book of my childhood, the incomparable Matilda. Miss Trunchbull struck fear in the hearts of children everywhere. She was a cruel and exacting despot, ruling with the iron fist over Matilda’s school and standing in stark contrast to beloved teacher Miss Honey. “The Trunchbull” laughed in the face of the maternal sensitivities often written onto female characters by default; she openly hated children (“I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting, they are the bane of my life”) and found increasingly creative ways to punish and torture them. I was terrified of her as a child, but the older I got the more I came to appreciate and respect her violation of the “rules” for women. She was ugly, brash, fiercely un-maternal, and she did not give a fuck what anyone thought.

Rebecca “Becky” Sharp (Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray)

Admittedly, I didn’t love Vanity Fair. The first few hundred pages were good, but the rest was a total snooze-fest. The only redeeming feature towards the end was Becky Sharp, the cunning, manipulative social climber. Granted, she definitely used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted (Thackeray was a man of his time, after all) but at least she was completely unapologetic about it. She had no compunction about luring men into her trap, and standing on their shoulders to get to the top of the social ladder. Becky wasn’t afraid to do the “wrong” thing; perhaps not a universally admirable trait, but in this case it got Becky a far happier ending than any of the other miserable sods in Vanity Fair.

Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert)

Emma Bovary had the audacity to become intolerably bored with the banal domestic life that her society had deemed “appropriate” for her. Over the course of Madame Bovary, she descended into a spiral of alcohol, adultery, and debt, culminating in her suicide. I suppose we could call her selfish and shallow; after all, she puts a hell of a dent in her husband’s finances to buy herself pretty things. But a more sympathetic reading shows her to be a caged bird, beating her wings and struggling to get free from her stifling, prescriptive life. As far as “bad women” go, she was the first one to make me think “There but for the grace of God”…




Sula Peace (Sula – Toni Morrison)

It takes a while for the character of Sula to emerge in Morrison’s critically acclaimed book Sula, but it’s damn worth the wait. Sula completely disregards every expectation of a woman in her position, and openly rejects the social conventions so determinedly upheld by her community. She defies gender roles, she is promiscuous, she is “disfigured” by a birthmark, and she is, above all, deeply independent. Plus she is a woman of colour: I only mention this because WOC antagonists are almost impossible to find in traditionally published fiction. Sula has been hugely influential in the development of feminist literary criticism, and the titular character is something to behold.

Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo (My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante)

I can’t speak to the rest of the Neapolitan series, but Lila from Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a bad woman in the making (a “bad girl” I suppose). Admittedly, she is very beautiful and charismatic, which buys her a certain kind of privilege, but she is also cruel, irreverent, manipulative, and overtly sexual. In the context of a poor town outside of Naples, Lila’s self-determination and bravery is all the more commendable.

Countess Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton)

The “badness” of women is a relative concept, of course. Countess Olenska’s indiscretions in The Age of Innocence might seem laughably benign to us today, but in her own time she was the height of scandal. The way that she spoke, her unconventional tastes, her lack of concern for social convention (clutch my pearls!), and her willingness to think for herself set her apart from the society wives of New York in the 1870s. Wharton wrote Countess Olenska masterfully, combining her brazenness and her tolerance with a deft hand. A bad woman ahead of her time!

Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy)

Fun fact: Tolstoy originally wrote Anna Karenina as a hideously ugly woman, in hopes of making the reader find her as disgusting as he initially did. As he wrote, he found her more and more redeemable, and that’s how she ended up a great beauty. In almost every other respect, though, she remains a bad woman. She seeks love in an affair outside of her marriage, and neglects her children (the “baddest” thing a woman can do). She indulges her own whims and desires in a way that Tolstoy intended for us to find repugnant, but there’s something irresistible about a woman who so determinedly sets fire to her own life.

I must add a couple of honourable mentions: Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, and Irene Adler of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both worthy of the respect we should afford to all bad women. Are there any others I’ve missed? Who are your favourite bad women in fiction? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

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

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Girl On The Train:

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

 

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Do You Use Your Local Library?

Last week, I talked about the best book bargains I’ve scored for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s great to buy books and I love the thrill of the hunt, but purchasing books can be out of reach (for one reason reason or another) for a lot of people. Mindful of that, I thought this week we could talk about a fantastic alternative. Do you use your local library?

Do You Use Your Local Library? Keeping Up With The Penguins

If I misbehaved as a kid, my mother’s go-to threat was “I won’t take you to the library this week!”. (Yes, I was a huge nerd.) It worked every time; I loved the library. There was a restriction of ten books per card per fortnight at the time, so I forced both of my parents to get library cards as well – that allowed me to get 30 books per fortnight (yes, I was a huge nerd) and gave me a life-long love of gaming the system. I visit my current local library less frequently now (and I’m certainly not checking out 30 books at a time!), but my love of those quiet buildings packed with books has never quite left me.

Why use your local library?

For the obvious reason, of course: you can read as much as you like, for free! If you’re a would-be booklover but hesitant about the financial outlay of stocking your own shelves, the library has thousands of books that are all yours (temporarily) for the low, low cost of filling out a form.

Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of new books released each year so it’s hardly possible for your local library to stock every single one, but I guarantee you that if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can use their request service (every library has one). They might be able to get it for you through their library network (libraries in the same area or the same state can exchange books as required to meet their patrons’ needs). Or, failing that, they will special-order it for you from the publisher. At no cost to you. Isn’t that fantastic? The only downside might be a bit of a wait for a super-popular new release, but that seems like a small price to pay.

Bonus: your local library probably gives away older or surplus books for free as well. I know mine does; they set up a table out the front and just leave stacks of books for passers-by to take as they will. I’ve picked up a couple of great books this way, so I always detour past the library when I’m in the area to check it out.

If you’re not sure what you’re after, I can also guarantee you that the staff at your local library will be able to help. They are huge book-lovers themselves, so when they have a moment ask them if they can recommend a book to you. They’ll probably do you one better, and fetch you an armful of recommendations tailored to your preferences. Librarians are amazing people; they are an extended support network for people from all walks of life (just ask them about the work they do helping job seekers print resumes, or teaching baby boomers how to use technology), and they are big supporters of important anti-censorship causes (like Banned Books Week).

If you’re still not convinced that you should use your local library, let’s see if I can help some more…

“But I use an e-reader, so libraries aren’t for me!”

That’s where you’re wrong (no offence). Libraries are doing their best to keep up with the times, despite ongoing cuts to their funding (grrrr). Most, if not all, libraries have some kind of scheme in place for eBook loans. A lot of them even offer the devices themselves to borrow if needed. The eBooks you get through the library have been quality controlled, which is a helluva lot better than taking a gamble on a download that might be displayed in tiny font and riddled with typos. With an e-reader and a library card, you can usually arrange to borrow books online without even having to leave your couch. The books will be automatically “returned” from your device at the end of your borrowing time, meaning no late notices or special trips to make returns. It’s the best of both worlds!

Even beyond eBooks, libraries will often offer access to all kinds of paywall content. In the “old days”, they would have subscriptions to hard-copy newspapers and magazines and keep them on site for visitors to read. Now, your library card can grant you access to subscription outlets online. Make sure to ask the library staff what they have on offer!




“What about the authors? I like to buy books so they get their cut.”

That’s really admirable, and I take my hat off to you. As I said last week, I’m a big believer in compensating creators for their work. But that doesn’t mean that your local library is off-limits…

Australia has what’s called “lending rights”, a program that allows eligible writers and publishers to receive royalties for repeated free usage of their work (as is the case with a library). So, even though there’s no cost to you, the creators still get what they’re owed.

For international Keeping Up With The Penguins readers, it might not be the case where you live – the U.K. and Canada have a similar scheme, as far as I know, but it’s all a bit of a mystery to me. A quick spot of Googling should be able to get you some answers, or you can (of course) always ask a librarian!

“Libraries are for kids, I’ve outgrown them.”

Have you checked out your local library’s events schedule? You can usually find it on your local government’s website, or check out the bulletin board at the library building. They have stacks of events every month, and there’s a good chance that a lot of them are aimed at adults. They host everything from author readings and signings, to writing and technology workshops, to movie screenings, to local meet-ups and get-togethers. Best of all, the events are usually free, or very low cost.

The library is great for a lot of adulting; have you ever tried working there? This is especially handy for freelancers and people who work remotely. Libraries offer a quiet, climate-controlled oasis in a desert of busy neighbourhoods and crowded houses. Free wi-fi access is standard across library networks, along with free/cheap computer access, printing and scanning. Larger libraries can even provide meeting rooms to members, if you need to collaborate with or present to others.

Bonus: being that your local library is a government building, they typically accommodate all accessibility requirements. For people with limited mobility, this can be a huge relief! These buildings are designed specifically for wheelchair access, and other mobility aids as well. This is a great reason to consider hosting an event at your local library if accessibility for your guests could be a concern.

“My nearest library is hours away, it’s not worth the trip!”

Australia is big, so it’s not uncommon that your local library is more than a stroll around the corner. Again, I’m not sure of the situation internationally, but I know that a lot of Australian libraries make special considerations for people who live in very remote areas. They might offer to extend borrowing periods for instance (if you have to drive five hours into town to return a book, doing it every two weeks can be a pain in the arse, after all). Some will even post your books out to you – you guessed it – for free. Finding out what they can do for you is as easy as contacting them online or giving them a call; they are usually only too happy to help. After all, they’re there for you!




As I said, my love of the local library has never really left me. I’m constantly amazed at what they manage to do for their communities with the trickle of funding they now get from our governments. Do you use your local library? Why/why not? Let me know in the comments below (or let’s chat about it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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Dracula – Bram Stoker

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

Dracula - Bram Stoker - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

“Stoker died in 1912, probably of syphilis.”

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dracula:

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

 

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7 Books that Gave Us Words and Catch Phrases We Use Every Day

Ever been stuck in a no-win situation? A ridiculous double-bind? Found yourself hamstrung by bureaucracy? Maybe you’ve been charged a fee for not having enough money in your account, or found yourself unable to get a job without any experience, or denied tenancy in a new apartment without a current personal address. You might have called the situation a “catch-22”, even if you’ve never read the book that gave us the term (maybe you never even knew it was from a book, no judgement!). So many words and idioms slip into our language, but how often do we really know where they come from? Check out these seven books that gave us words and catch phrases we use every day.

Books That Gave Us Words and Catch Phrases - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

As I’ve just mentioned, a catch-22 is widely understood to mean a predicament where the very nature of the problem prevents it from being resolved. It originated with Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22: the main character, Yossarian, wants to be excused from flying any more missions in the military (because every time he pilots a military plane, he risks death). He finds himself butting up against “catch-22”: pilots who are declared mentally unfit do not have to fly any more missions, but pilots who request to be declared mentally unfit are clearly of sound mind (as they want to avoid dying), so they must fly. Fun fact: the book might have actually been called Catch-18 (sounds funny, doesn’t it?), as that was Heller’s original title, but he and his publisher agreed to change it when other novels featuring the number eighteen in their title appeared around the same time. (I’ve reviewed Catch-22 in full right here!)

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

If someone is referred to as “Jekyll and Hyde”, generally we understand that they have two distinct personalities: one gentle, refined and well-behaved, the other hedonistic, violent and hostile. This is lifted directly from the plot of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where the well-respected Dr Jekyll invents a scientific process by which he morphs into Mr Hyde, allowing him to indulge his aberrant urges without fear of losing face (check out my review here for more details!).

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

I had to triple-check this, because it didn’t seem right, but believe it or not it was Dickens who gave us the word “boredom”! English-speakers had been using the word “bore” for about a century, but Dickens was the first to turn the feeling into a noun. It appeared in his 1853 novel Bleak House. How on Earth could we have lived without a word for that? Thank you, Dickens!




Cabbages and Kings – O. Henry

What would you call a tropical nation with an unstable government and an over-reliance on the export of a single product? A “banana republic”, of course! The term is drawn from the novel Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it is set in the fictional “Republic of Anchuria” in Central America. The Republic’s primary export was – you guessed it – bananas. Funnily enough, the title of the book was itself drawn from The Walrus and The Carpenter, a poem that appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I still remember my mother explaining to me the meaning of the phrase “a pot calling the kettle black”. As I recall, she said that it meant to accuse someone of something that you’re doing yourself – which is pretty much spot on. What she didn’t tell me (not that I blame her) was that the idiom was popularised by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Don Quixote back in the 17th century. He lifted it from the common understanding at the time that both pots and kettles made of cast-iron would get black with soot in the kitchens of the era. It’s pretty bloody enduring as far as idioms go, because we still use it today, some four centuries later!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Remember I mentioned Alice in Wonderland just before? Well, it warrants its very own spot in this list! Among a whole bunch of funny turns-of-phrase (“through the looking glass”, “down the rabbit hole”, “Cheshire cat smile”, “off with her head”) we get “mad as a hatter” – meaning seriously bonkers! Well, to put it more politely, someone is “mad as a hatter” if they’re behaving erratically, speaking nonsense, or displaying any kind of unusual behaviour. Carroll borrowed the idea from a well-known phenomenon of hat manufacturers being struck down with mercury poisoning (yes, that was a thing). In so doing, he created his character The Mad Hatter, and a phrase that was cemented into the English language.

1984 – George Orwell

A lot of the phrases from 1984 are getting extra air-time at the moment, as a lot of Orwell’s predictions seem to be coming eerily true. Of course, we all understand the concept of “Big Brother” – the totalitarian dictator, always watching and thus completely controlling his society.  Orwell also created “Newspeak”, a fictional language that gave us gems like “doublethink” (being able to hold two contrary or opposing ideas at the very same thing). We really do owe him a lot!

Even if you never read a single one of these books, at least you can give a smug smile every time you use one of the phrases, knowing that you’ll be able to explain the origins of them if anyone asks (and even if they don’t!). Are there any words or phrases from literature that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments (or use them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

It was quite some time ago now that I picked up a perfectly-preserved copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from that ever-giving local secondhand bookstore. I know at least one very loyal reader is very excited for this particular review; he’s a former colleague, and for years we shared an in-joke that we would buy a copy of Heller’s seminal work as a Secret Santa gift for a woman on our team who would constantly refer to difficult circumstances as “Catch-42s”. Yes, we’re horrible, petty people, but in our defense it was really, really funny.

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Joseph Heller began working on Catch-22 in spare moments at his day job in 1953. The sonofabitch book took eight years to complete, finally published in 1961. Heller died 30 years later. He was the poster child for the uber-precious 20th century white male author, if his introduction is anything to go by. To summarise, he looked back on his masterpiece shortly before his death, stomped his foot, and whined “it didn’t win ANY awards or get on ANY bestseller lists, even though my publisher made some smart people read it and THEY said it was really good! HMPH!“. He was more than a little bitter about the reviews that were less than glowing, even though the book is largely lauded as one of the greatest satirical works of all time. There’s just no pleasing some people…

Catch-22 is set during WWII, between 1942 and 1944. The main character is a bombadier; Heller was also a bombadier during that very period, so apparently he took the whole “write what you know” thing pretty literally. The story follows the life of Captain Yossarian and others in his squadron. They’re all just trying to fulfill or circumvent the requirements of their deployment so they can get the fuck out of Dodge.

I would think that the main reason to pick this one up today is to figure out for yourself the origins of the cultural shorthand “a catch-22”. Luckily, I’m here to save you all the trouble! It’s essentially a plot device: a Catch-22 initially refers to the paradoxical requirement that men who are mentally unfit to fly planes in the war effort did not have to do so, but to claim that you were mentally unfit and did not want to fly made you demonstrably sane (ergo, fit to fly). So, you can’t win either way, it’s a catch-22. Geddit? In the story, Yossarian has a few stabs at getting the squadron’s doctor to declare him mentally unfit (so that he could go home without having to fly any more missions), but he’s stymied at every turn by Catch-22. This “catch” is invoked a lot as the book goes on, with broader and broader applications, until it becomes an explanation for virtually all unreasonable restrictions encountered by the cast of characters.




The ultimate catch, as Yossarian figures out towards the end, is that Catch-22 doesn’t actually exist, except that everyone simply believes that it does – as such, it can never be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. It’s pretty clever, if you ask me. A “catch-22” is now, of course, understood to mean any type of double-bind or absurd no-win situation, but I’d imagine that only a really small percentage of those who use the phrase have actually read the book. (It’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde all over again!)

Catch-22 reads like a satirical memoir in that it’s a series of anecdotes cobbled together to showcase the ridiculousness of war and bureaucracy. In a lot of respects, though, it’s all over the shop; as the introduction puts it, the novel has a “distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration”. Basically, the reader has to figure out for themselves what’s going on and where things are at, because it jumps around like a coked-up rabbit.

The first couple hundred pages are really funny. I don’t think you need to have had exposure to military life to appreciate the comedy – really, any experience in bureaucracy will do. It’s a lot like watching any satirical TV show; there’s a cast of exaggerated characters and maybe a thread or two tying things together, but no real cohesive plot. Everything comes together to leave you shaking your head.

Even though Heller was pissed off about its critical reception and sales, Catch-22 actually did quite well. It became particularly popular among teenagers in the 1960s, as a kind of manifesto embodying the feelings they had about the Vietnam War. Indeed, “Yossarian Lives!” became an anti-war slogan at the time, and there was a joke about every liberal arts student arriving at university with a copy of Catch-22 under their arm. So, really, Heller needed to calm down – he captured the youth market at a very turbulent time and coined a phrase used by English speakers every day to describe the universal frustration brought on by dealing with bureaucracy in all its forms. Bloody neurotic writers, they wouldn’t know success if it bit them on the arse…

Like I said, Catch-22 is really funny… for the first couple hundred pages. Past that point, it starts to wear a bit thin. I know Heller was probably Making A Point with all the circular reasoning and repetition, but the point was well-made pretty early on. The second half of the book started to get really predictable (read: boring), and then it nosedived at the end into some really dark realities of war. I recommend that reading some of the funniest excepts online is the best way to go, rather than sinking your teeth into the whole thing (Heller’s neurotic tantrums be damned).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Catch-22:

  • “Worth buy.” – Sarah
  • “Great opening but then the story becomes more and more predictable and boring as the characters develop. The jokes for some reason don’t captivate my soul.” – lolly
  • “It’s a great book. I hate it!” – Cullen Forster
  • “First published in 1961, this scathing satire of nincompoops in the Air Force works today about nincompoops everywhere else.” – Gale H. Weir
  • “I’m in the Army.” – Daniel Dobson
  • “Other than the bible, this is one of my favourite books!” – Mr Paul

 

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Cha-Ching! Best Book Bargains

Starting the Keeping Up With The Penguins project presented a bit of a problem: books ain’t cheap. I set myself a limit of $10 per book, but even if I stuck to that 100% I would still end up spending north of a grand. Plus, in my soul, I’m a firm believer in compensation for artists. Getting the books cheaply is great for me and everything, but authors should get paid what they’re worth for their work. On top of that, I adore independent and second-hand bookstores. Every dollar that I spend with them means employment for the creative writing student, and bills paid for the small business owner, and support for small presses, and opportunities for emerging writers.

So, my life for the last year has been a delicate balancing act: finding books that fit within my budget, while upholding my own ideals about the book industry. I love the thrill of the hunt – nothing compares to finding a long-sought-after tome buried in a bookstore bargain bin, especially when you can take it home in exchange for just the shrapnel that you have in your pocket. It turns out I have a real knack for it! There’s a perception that buying books through smaller and independent retailers means spending more: I’m here to prove that’s not the case! I thought I’d share a few of the best book bargains I’ve found for Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Best Book Bargains And Where To Find Them - Text overlaid on image of stacked coins - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula was one of my first bargain bin finds, and I walked home afterwards on cloud nine! I spied it at my local secondhand bookstore, marked at the princely sum of $3.

Dracula - Bram Stoker - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

I’ll admit I broke the budget with this one, but I feel it’s justified! Technically, my $10 limit was just for The Picture of Dorian Gray, but this book contains everything that Oscar Wilde ever wrote, so if I average it out… it was a steal! I found this one in a tiny crammed bookstore in Tel Aviv (of all places!) while on my honeymoon. I paid 50 shekels, which converted to roughly $20 back home.

Used Book Store - Tel Aviv - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

When I set out to find Yes Please, I thought it’d be a fool’s errand. Poehler had reached peak popularity at the time, for her performances in Saturday Night Live during the American election. But I struck gold! I spotted her memoir in the window of my local secondhand bookstore, marked at $10 (right on budget!). It was super-early and they weren’t open yet, and I had to go into the city – so I messaged my husband immediately and made him promise to be waiting outside the door when the owner arrived, to secure it before someone else did. Because he loves me, he did just that, and that’s how it came to be this week’s review!

Yes Please - Amy Poehler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

I got the best kind of bargain for Moby Dick: it was free! I actually “borrowed” (re: stole) it from my husband’s collection. Of course, in doing so, I ended up with a copy so excessively worn and dog-eared that I was scared to open it, lest it fall apart. Still, it (miraculously) held up, and it served me well!

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

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Book Thief was #1 on the Dymocks 101 list of 2016, so I knew finding a bargain copy was just a matter of patience. When a book is announced as a winner of any kind, there’s a rush to buy it and everywhere sells out, then there’s a lull as everyone reads it, and then eventually it starts showing up in garage sales and secondhand bookstores. Sure enough, I managed to pick up The Book Thief about twelve months after its nomination for just $4.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

I actually bought this one many years before Keeping Up With The Penguins was even conceived. I was picking up something else entirely from Big W in the small regional town where I lived at the time, and I spotted The Hunger Games marked down to just $2.37. I’d heard of the book and figured I’d want to read it one day, so I grabbed it. And, what do you know, I finally got around to it!

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

My purchase of A Passage To India is notable simply for the fact that I don’t often buy hardcovers, but this one was such a bargain I couldn’t resist! I find hardcovers bulky and annoying a lot of the time (even though many of them are beautiful, drool!). Still, when I spied this beautiful, perfect, pristine edition in that ever-giving local bookshop, I couldn’t resist! An absolute bargain at just $7.




Now, just because I’m a local bookstore fiend doesn’t mean there aren’t cracking deals to be found through the bigger retailers. I’m not that much of a snob! 😉

Dymocks tends to run some fantastic 3-for-2 promotions, and I’m always keeping an eye out for deals on the Penguin Classics (particularly when they come with the gorgeous Penguin merch!).

Another hot tip: Amazon actually has hundreds of classics available for free on Kindle! Works that have passed into the public domain (after their author has been deceased for 75 years) are downloadable for free, or at least very cheaply! If you’re hung up on hard copies, though (like I am!), you can still get some amazing deals. Check out all the freebies here – you’ll be surprised at what you might find!

What’s the best bargain you’ve ever found on a book? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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Yes Please – Amy Poehler

I thought I had no chance of coming across a copy of Yes Please by Amy Poehler for <$10 (my self-imposed book budget for the Keeping Up With The Penguins project), after Saturday Night Live’s (and, by extension, Poehler’s) popularity boom during the last U.S. election. And yet, I managed to snatch it – for the right price – from the window of my favourite secondhand bookstore. Is there any better feeling?

Yes Please - Amy Poehler - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes Please is the memoir of the American actress/comedian/television writer, released in 2014. In terms of accolades, it was nominated for a Grammy – of all things – for Best Spoken Word Album. It seems fitting for a celebrity who has hedged her brand on her reputation for not playing by the rules.

I expected to love it. After all, I loved Bossypants, written by Poehler’s wife-in-comedy Tina Fey. I love books by strong, funny, honest women. I love memoirs. Right from the outset, it ticked all of the right boxes. I had read that it was received with mixed reviews upon release – critics liked some parts and hated others, apparently. But isn’t that just life? I had high hopes.

Well: sometimes, I chuckled. Sometimes, it seemed a bit self-help-y. Sometimes, Poehler made a really good point. Sometimes, she name dropped a probably-famous person, but I didn’t know of them so it went right over my head. It was a mixed bag, really.




Yes Please didn’t feel as much like reading as it did An ExperienceTM. It’s more of a scrapbook than a memoir; there’s full-colour photographs and letters from friends and extracts from television scripts. There’s no cohesive narrative, it’s a series of essays and letters and anecdotes plucked from the life of a famous person.

The thing is, I’ve never watched SNL, save for the grabs that make the evening news when Alec Baldwin does a funny Trump impression. I had to stop a few times to jump on YouTube and find a clip she described. My personal favourite was a heavily-pregnant Poehler delivering a rap on behalf of Sarah Palin. Still, those stolen moments weren’t enough to allow me to immerse myself in the book itself. The parts about SNL and about improve troupes and about Parks and Recreation were really written for readers that wanted a backstage pass to the films and television shows that they already love. Some knowledge of Amy Poehler, and her career (especially on SNL), and comedy/theater/television more broadly is definitely required in order to enjoy Yes Please properly. (At least, that’s what I tell myself, rather than face the equally-likely reality that I am just a dimwit who couldn’t follow along.)

I wanted to know what Poehler thought about life, about men, about feminism, about marriage, about human nature… Really, the only piece of Poehler’s work with which I was deeply familiar prior to reading Yes Please was her bit-part in Mean Girls, and that didn’t even rate a mention!

Amy Poehler is a Cool Mom - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The one part I really connected with was her “Plain Girl vs The Demon” essay. Poehler managed to articulate something very important about women getting to decide their currency in the world, emphasising that it’s okay if looks aren’t it. That’s not a message that women hear very often, and it churned around in my head for a while.

I also applauded Poehler’s lack of gratitude-gushing, and her refusal to feed the reader any crap about “luck”. She’s very frank and forthright about how her own hard work got her to where she is today. There was no magical coincidence that tossed her into the lap of an SNL director and shot her off to stardom. She expresses an appropriate amount of gratitude to the people she knew who helped her along the way, of course, but make no bones about it: Poehler’s here to tell you she made it to the top on the sweat of her own brow.

I occasionally laughed out loud, which is normally a great sign for a book, but ten minutes later I couldn’t remember the joke. Either I’m getting old, or Yes Please just didn’t resonate with me. It felt like Poehler and I were buzzing on different frequencies.

Amy Poehler is wise and wonderful and honest and smart. I didn’t love her book, but her book is not her. I don’t think she needs me to love Yes Please, and I don’t think that not loving it makes me a troll or a hater. It’s a book for people who love her already, after all; I doubt it would lead a true troll or hater to change their minds. As she says in her introduction, “writing is hard” – my hat still goes off to her.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Yes Please:

  • “I discovered I do not care about Ms. Poehler’s life.” – SJ MATTHEWS
  • “Throughout the book, Amy writes that she didn’t know what to write about and writing is hard. She was right.” – R Aesch
  • “It took me a long time to get through this. It wasn’t as funny or as interesting as I thought it would be. It’s also a very heavy book for a paperback. Tough to hold up while reading in bed.” – Jeannebug1
  • “Cool Insite into her life And show business but it’s not a jaw slapper.” – Sweet Doodle
  • “I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. Will tell u when done.” – Laurie Rea

 

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