Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

What’s The Difference Between Literary Fiction And Popular Fiction?

Alrighty, Keeper Upperers: today, we’re going to tackle one of the trickiest debates in the bookish world. What’s the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction? In my “real” life, in addition to Keeping Up With The Penguins, I work in a bookstore and I’ve just completed my Masters of Creative Writing, so I’ve had a lot of cause to think about this question over the couple of years. I can’t promise you I’ve got THE answer (anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something), but I’ve got some thoughts…

What's The Difference Between Literary Fiction And Popular Fiction? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For most of my reading life, I considered “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” to be miscellaneous No-Man’s-Lands, the places I mentally sent every book that didn’t fit neatly into a “genre” category. If it had magic and dragons, it’s fantasy. If it had marriage proposals and sexy bits, it’s romance. If it had spaceships and robots, it’s science fiction. But when a book had none of those qualities, or too many of them, it ended up going “over there” to general fiction territory. I decided which side of the border each book landed on – “literary fiction” or “popular fiction” – using a kind of sliding scale between “likely to win a major literary prize, like the Booker” and “likely to be purchased for $4.99 in an airport”.

And now, let’s look at a few of the (almost innumerable) problems with that line of thinking:

  • All of these judgements are pretty subjective, not to mention arbitrary. You can buy just about any book in an airport nowadays, and major awards have been given to some real stinkers. Just look at what happened with Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; it was widely heralded as a critical success, but the Granddaddy of literary criticism James Wood wrote it off as “hysterical fiction” and many airport loungers complained that they “didn’t get it”.
  • These judgements are based on external factors – what others think of the book, what the publisher’s marketing budget is, where the book is sold, what it looks like – rather than the content of the book itself. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers.
  • There’s an inherent elitism in this divide that’s impossible to ignore: “literary fiction” is for intellectuals and grown-ups, while “popular fiction” is for slobs.



It’s that last point that I want to hone in on here. If Keeping Up With The Penguins had a slogan, I’m pretty sure it would be “elitism stinks”. The whole point of this project and this blog was to break down the barriers (or at least lob a brick or two in their direction) between “good” books and “bad” books, between “classics” and “potboilers”, between the “literary” and the “popular”. I’d always worried that I wasn’t “smart” enough to read or understand literary fiction and classic literature, and it’s because of the very elitism that underwrites this divide.

David Foster Wallace said in one of his essays that “Low Art” is the sort of art that has to please people in order to make money. Now, he was talking about television at the time, but I think we can apply the same philosophy to “popular fiction”. Popular fiction needs to be – you guessed it – popular, in order to be successful. Lots of people need to buy it. And the best way to get people to buy your thing is to give them what they want: whether it be dragons, or sexy bits, or space ships, or just a laugh.

“High Art”, on the other hand (according to David Foster Wallace, and this analogy, anyway) needn’t concern itself with popularity. “Literary fiction”, the die-hard adherents would have you believe, is about Artistic Endeavour and Creative Expression and has no concern with popularity or sales. Except, of course, that’s complete bullshit. Even literary geniuses have to feed themselves. What good is writing a brilliant work of literary fiction if it doesn’t pay the rent? Indeed, how could anyone write a brilliant work of literary fiction if they can’t afford to feed themselves? (Yes, classism and elitism are kissing cousins.)



My suspicion is, deep down, that we all know this divide between “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” is a lie. Every criterion we use to judge them is retrofitted to our gut-feelings. When we read a book, we just “feel” like it’s one or the other – which is why booklovers argue themselves hoarse about the differences between them. No book will “feel” the same to every reader, which means every reader will make their own assessment as to its popularity versus literariness. (Yes, even popularity is subjective – the false consensus effect is an unavoidable cognitive bias that leads us to believe most people agree with us, so if we think a book is good we are inclined to believe that others will/do think the same.)

I see this play out time and time again, in many areas of my bookish life: whether I’m shelving books at work, discussing books in class, or figuring out how to tag them on this blog and on #bookstagram. Diane Chamberlain is a good example: a first-glance at the cover of Big Lies In A Small Town had me convinced that it was going to be formulaic popular fiction seasoned with thriller tropes, but reading it I found a really astonishing and quite literary story about art and race. Even so, I think I’d have a tough time convincing my lecturers to let me write an academic essay about it. Or we could look at a book like An American Marriage, which seems to tick all the boxes on both sides of the page: an Oprah book club pick AND a literary prize winner, a best-seller AND a critical success. What on earth would we call that? Popular literary fiction? Literary popular fiction?

I told you I wouldn’t have THE answer, and – yes, I spoiled it for you – I don’t. I’d really love to see us do away with labels like “literary fiction” and “popular fiction” altogether, but I can see how that’s not practical. These labels act like marketing shorthand, and make it much easier for a lot of people to choose what they’re going to read next. It’s just a shame that, I suspect, they’re going to miss out on some great choices because of these arbitrary, subjective, and elitist distinctions. Ah, well – at least you can always rely on me, here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, to give it to you straight, wherever the book is shelved.


An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

Here’s another book that’s been on my to-read list forever: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I had a copy on my shelves, but I kept saving it for “the right moment”. Well, given everything that’s happened in the U.S. over the past couple of months, that moment is now. This is the book that Oprah says has “redefined the traditional American love story”.

An American Marriage is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, but it’s truly her “break-out” book – the one that brought her international attention and acclaim. I love the story of how the idea came to her, which she relates in a letter to the reader in the front of my edition:

An American Marriage is a love story I found in the mall, of all places. Sitting in the food court, I overheard a young couple arguing in hushed tones. She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He looked puzzled and then replied, ‘This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’

Tayari Jones, An american Marriage

From that spark of inspiration came this story of Roy and Celestial, a middle-class African American couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman.

Now, An American Marriage is not a did-he-or-didn’t-he story. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. Fortunately, Jones also sidesteps describing or interrogating the nature of the assault that did actually take place (so there’s no fuel to fire any false-allegation readings) – she presents this as a case of mistaken identity, with the weight of hundreds of years of systemic racism behind it. A black man was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid the price: convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.



Of course, given the premise, this book is about the incarceration of black men in America (56% of all incarcerated people in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic, and Black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men; source) but that’s not all it’s about. Jones has taken the maxim of writing about “people and their problems” (as opposed to simply problems personified) seriously. Roy and Celestial, and the characters on the periphery of their relationship, are complex, fleshed-out, “real”. As much as this novel addresses very timely social issues, it also looks at what it takes to make or break a marriage, the sliding doors moments that affect all our lives. I think what it shows best of all (to borrow and mix a couple of metaphors, forgive me) is that there is no one straw that breaks a camel’s back, and no marriage exists in a vacuum.

Some sections are epistolary, told in letters sent back and forth between Roy and Celestial. They’re essentially existing on different timelines; “real life” has stopped for Roy, and he has little to do but think about his marriage, but everything continues for Celestial on the outside. Jones is really clever in how much she “shows” the reader about these characters, and how they change, through their letters. For the first few years, they’re writing frequently and emphatically, but there’s a noticeable shift as Celestial’s life begins to progress and Roy feels frustrated at being “left behind”. It’s a unique window into the ebbs and flows of a relationship where each character takes the time to articulate their thoughts on paper, directly to the other, with nothing said in haste and no performance for onlookers.

Then, there are other sections that are internal narratives, told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre (a vested third party in their marriage). This is another deft stroke from Jones (gosh, she’s clever), as it lets each character speak for themselves and gives them each an opportunity to win us over (or piss us off). There really is no “hero” in this story, no one character that you’re really rooting for at the expense of the others. You’ll be lured into loving and resenting all of these characters, all simultaneously. Some might find that annoying, but I actually really appreciated the shades of grey, and being able to see things from all sides. It’s the most realistic kind of love story. And, besides, at the heart of it all, there’s one common enemy, for the characters and for us: the racism at the core of the U.S. “justice” system. That’s not a focus of the novel, per se, but it’s the backdrop against which the love story plays out.



Anyway, back to the plot: three years into Roy’s sentence, Celestial tells him she no longer wishes to be his wife, which pisses him off (obviously). He refuses to see her or accept her letters for the following two years. Then, his case is overturned on appeal, and he is released. He optimistically reaches out to Celestial, hoping that their marriage could be rekindled (as she never formally divorced him), naively forgetting that he’s coming “home” to a marriage that existed mostly in his mind.

Normally, this is where I’d just go ahead and dissect the ending for you too, but I reckon this’ll be one of my very few spoiler-free reviews (okay, fine, Roy’s early release is probably technically a spoiler if you’re going to get all persnickety about it, but that only comes about half-way through the book, so there’s still a whole lotta twists and turns that I’m not ruining for you, suck it up). What I will say is that Roy and Celestial’s story, the way it unfolds, is heartbreaking and infuriating – all the more for the fact that it’s such a common and devastating reality for so many American families.

I worry about pushing that angle too hard, though, lest An American Marriage get pigeonholed in your mind as an “issue novel”. It’s truly not. It’s based on realistic “issues”, yes, but it’s ultimately about loyalty, how much we owe and to whom. It’s about marriage, and what we can reasonably expect from our spouses and ourselves. And, best of all, it’s so readable (stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable), and so emotive (make-sure-you’ve-got-tissues-handy emotive). If you’ve been putting off reading this one because of all the hype, stop doing that and get on it right now – An American Marriage totally lives up.

My favourite Amazon reviews of An American Marriage:

  • “I bought the audible version – I liked this book but it’s probably not going to end the way the reader wants it to – life is like that.” – Theresa V
  • “Ex-wife purchased dumb book” – Mr. Bill
  • “Why all the fuss? Not only is it unrealistic, it puts some truly unlikable characters centre stage. Reading the reviews was more interesting.” – Antonio C

Mid-Year Round Up: Best Books of 2020 (So Far!)

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a long, long year… and it’s only nearly half-way done! Really, one of the (very) few upsides is that we’ve had the chance to pick up some great new books, and catch up on some older ones we missed the first time around. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d do a little interim round-up of the best books I’ve read in 2020 so far. Here’s to getting back on track in the second half!

Mid-Year Round Up - The Best Books of 2020 So Far - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Less finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time booty-buddy dumps him to marry a far more eligible (and age appropriate) bachelor. Arthur Less decides that he must act. He can’t RSVP “no” to the nuptials and admit defeat, but he couldn’t possibly attend either, especially with his own 50th birthday looming… so, he proceeds to accept every half-baked invitation he’s received to literary events around the world, and sends his ex his regrets, citing “unfortunate” prior engagements. I highly recommend this heartwarming adventure of self-discovery to anyone in need of a chuckle. Read my full review of Less here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as popular as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado has done it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. It’s a must-read, and destined to become a pillar of the queer literary canon.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically a young-adult novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed as such. Riley, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy living in Trope Town, has been acting out and upsetting the authors of the books in which he plays a purely-supporting role. He’s sent to therapy with all the other defective Manic Pixies, and that’s when things start to go really awry. This literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately. Read my full review of The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project here.

Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

Throat - Ellen Van Neerven - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Van Neerven’s new poetry collection, Throat, is at times sarcastic, at others simply searing, but always in the most deeply satisfying way. They never shy away from the political (“This country is a haunted house, governments still playing cat chasing marsupial mouse”) or the personal (“The Only Blak Queer In The World” is a heart-wrenching insight into the isolation of intersectionality, and the search for community and solace). The cities that ate Australia is particular perfection, as is Politicians having long showers on stolen land, and all are incredibly timely with the Black Lives Matter movement gaining traction around the world. I devoured Throat in a single sitting, and I’m sure I will savour it again over many more.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I first read Rabbits For Food back in January, I was worried that I’d peaked too soon, that I’d already found my favourite book of the year. Six months on, I’m still worried! The main character, Bunny, lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. The book is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them – and I think we could all do with a few more of those. I’d love to recommend it as a book club read, but I think I’m late to the party; everyone seems to have read it and loved it already! I’m glad I finally got around to it in 2020. Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

That’s right: Carmen Maria Machado is a double-header in my round-up of the best books of 2020 so far! Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. This is a story about a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Don’t sleep on it, folks!

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair by Ali Whitelock

the lactic acid in the calves of your despiar - Ali Whitelock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, cards on the table: Ali Whitelock is a dear friend of mine… BUT I keep my objectivity hat on at all times for you, Keeper Upperers! Besides, I fell in love with her poetry long before she and I fell in together, and I read and reviewed the lactic acid in the calves of your despair all of my own accord. I never cease to be amazed by her incredible talent to tickle, tantalise, delight, and devastate. Personal favourite from this collection has to be NOTES from the six week course entitled: ‘a beginner’s guide to writing poetry’, but an honourable mention must go to if you have no eyes where do the tears go?, and (of course) the poem that became a viral sensation during the Australian bush fires earlier this year, this is coal don’t be afraid. Ali Whitelock continues to give ’em hell, and it’s an honour to watch her do it.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean Mckay

The Animals In That Country - Laura Jean Mckay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few authors would consider themselves lucky to be releasing a book in the midst of a global pandemic. Laura Jean McKay might be the only exception. Her new novel The Animals In That Country revolves around the outbreak of a highly infections sub-type of influenza that threatens the very fabric of society – sound familiar? It’s an eerily prescient premise, right down to the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and the government ads that encourage people to “keep calm and stay indoors”. McKay is a masterful storyteller, and her talent truly shines in this story of family and belonging. Read my full review of The Animals In That Country on Primer here.


What have been your best reads of 2020 so far? Let me know in the comments below!

Finding Nevo – Nevo Zisin

Nevo Zisin finds the concept of “coming out” – the idea that someone is straight until proven otherwise – really bothersome. They should know, they’ve had to do it a lot. Over the course of their young life, they’ve “come out” as bisexual, lesbian, queer, trans, non-binary, and polyamorous. But they’ve done a lot of other stuff too. Nevo is an activist, writer, and public speaker, focusing on issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. Finding Nevo is their first book, a “memoir of becoming”.

Nevo sums it up best when they say, about halfway through Finding Nevo: “There is no single trans narrative. This is my experience, and my experience alone.” But even bearing that in mind, for people unfamiliar with real-life trans and non-binary stories, this book is a bit of a crash course in a lot of the personal and political aspects of a life outside the cis-gender binary. Nevo introduces and describes subjects like changing pronouns, “passing”, seeking medical care, accessibility in public spaces, and there’s a really helpful glossary and resource guide in the back – but Finding Nevo never reads like a textbook, nor does it read like high-minded literature. Nevo uses language that is accessible to anyone. They don’t assume any pre-existing knowledge, just an open mind.

Nevo was born into a Jewish family, part of Melbourne’s very tight-knit Jewish community, which gives them unique insight into the intersection of culture, social mores, and religion in the LGBTIQ+ community. Nevo was assigned female at birth, and their mother desperately wanted a girl. So, for much of Nevo’s early years, femininity was enforced: dresses and skirts, pink toys, the whole she-bang. Nevo describes their childhood as being very lonely, and the more they tried to conform to others’ expectations, the less they felt they “fit in”.

Over the course of their childhood and adolescence, Nevo struggled to find which “version” of themselves felt most authentic. They are frank about the shifts and iterations they went through with their identity over time, and – crucially – the impact that their realisations and decisions had on their relationships (especially with their family members).





What Finding Nevo ultimately depicts and advocates is a process of “unlearning”: not just our ideas about the gender binary, but other restrictive expectations and assumptions, too. Nevo rejects the dominant narrative that all trans and non-binary people were “born in the wrong body”. However well-intentioned that explanation may seem (indeed, a lot of trans people use it themselves), Nevo resists the idea that their body is “wrong”. They also learned (the hard way!) that identities aren’t rigid, and it’s okay for them to change and evolve over time. It’s okay not to know and to go with what feels “right” at the moment. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

Given that Finding Nevo is only about 200 pages long, it covers a remarkable amount of ground. Nevo talks about many aspects of identity and transformation: the physical realities of life in a trans/non-binary body, negotiating the divide between their sexuality/gender and their religious faith, and all of the good, bad, and ugly emotions that have come with every step. Nevo describes great pain, joyful optimism, crippling anxiety, bewildering dysphoria, and – ultimately – determined hope. And they were only twenty years old at the time of writing! Incredible!

It’s a quick read, with straightforward language, and it’s appropriate for pretty much all ages (I’d say if a kid is old enough to ask questions about this book’s content, they’re old enough to read it and, maybe with a little help, understand). In fact, it won the Australian Family Therapists’ Book Of The Year Award in 2018. It’s a really useful resource and learning tool for queer folk and straight/cis-gendered readers. For people who are struggling with their own identity, Finding Nevo will hopefully be a source of comfort and reassurance. For others, it will be an opportunity to learn, to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes, and come closer to understanding a life that is different to their own.





For me, this was a really timely read – not just because it’s Pride, not just because reviewing Frankissstein last week had me confronting my own blind spots, but also because while there’s never a “bad” time to learn and to empathise, the current moment seems particularly good for it. Reading it re-enforced the importance of amplifying #ownvoices non-fiction, as well as fictional depictions of diverse characters. I really admire Nevo’s generosity in sharing their experience, so candidly, in a way that could help so many others. Finding Nevo is a heart-felt, thoughtful, and constructive memoir – do the world a favour and buy it for the TERF in your life today!


12+ Books That Will Teach You Something New

My father always says “you’re never too old to learn”. I’m still a spring chicken (and I’ll deny any evidence to the contrary), but even I can see the wisdom in that. I sure as heck learned a lot reading and reviewing Frankissstein earlier this week. My bookish partner-in-crime, Chent, read that book and worked on that review alongside me. I learned that just because a book is marketed as a “trans novel” doesn’t make it so (in fact, it should probably make you more suspicious than anything), that identifying as queer doesn’t give you unique access to all queer experiences, that undeniable writing talent isn’t enough to make a good book… the list goes on and on. In that spirit, I’ve decided to put together this list of books that will teach you something new.

Books That Will Teach You Something New - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In some ways, every book will teach you something, regardless of its genre, quality, or content. I tried to cap this list at an even dozen, but more and more books that will teach you something new kept jumping out at me, and I just couldn’t help myself.

DON’T SCROLL PAST THIS EXTENDED INTRODUCTION TO GET STRAIGHT TO THE GOODS! I see you! Before we get stuck in, I want to highlight a few books that will speak more accurately to the LGBTIQ+ experience than Frankissstein did or could. It seems only fair that I stick them front and center, don’t you think? Chent and I discussed it, and concluded that This Book Is Gay is a great start for people wanting to learn more about queer life, queer communities, and queer politics. Further recommended reading would include The Stonewall Reader, Queer There And Everywhere, and Growing Up Queer In Australia. Now, go forth and do some book learnin’!

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s start with the granddaddy of books that will teach you something new: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. As the title suggests, it contains… well, a short history of nearly everything. Even though it was first published about fifteen years ago (and still refers to Pluto as a planet, whoops!), this bad boy is still chockers full of fun and relevant facts that you won’t be able to resist sharing around the water cooler. I know that I annoyed my friends and family for WEEKS with insights into geology, biology, evolutionary psychology, physiology, universeology (okay, that’s not the real name, but I was on a roll there). I’ll happily make a personal guarantee that this book will teach you something new, AND you’ll have fun while you’re doing it. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender - Susannah Cahalan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In a former life, I was a psychology student (in fact, I went on to get First Class Honours, thank you very much). Throughout the duration of my degree, and for years afterwards, I always took the Rosenhan experiment as read. A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication, thus proving that psychiatric diagnosis was biased and basically bullshit. Right?

Wrong. Susannah Cahalan called into question everything I thought I “knew” about that experiment, and the years of psychiatric research that has come off the back of it. Don’t mistake me: The Great Pretender isn’t some quacky conspiracy-theorist psychiatry hit job, but it is a critical examination of the field of psychiatry and its fallibility. Not only did this book teach me a great deal about a field I thought I already “knew”, it taught me a lot about questioning the sources of my own knowledge and not taking for granted my own critical thinking.

In My Skin by Kate Holden

In My Skin - Kate Holden - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve read a lot – a lot – about the history and lived experience of sex work undertaken by women, and In My Skin by Kate Holden remains the very best of all. Perhaps it’s because it was one of the very first (I read it when I was in my mid-teens), and it’s probably the book that prompted/shaped my interest and understanding of this subject at an influential time in my life. Holden doesn’t hold her fire. She doesn’t shy away from cliches or stereotypes where they are, in her case, true (she was addicted to heroin for the majority of her career as a sex worker), but she also works to dismantle the prejudices and misconceptions that are still so widespread about this industry.

I credit this book with not only being an incredible piece of writing, and not only with teaching me about a way of life with which I was not at all familiar, but with teaching me how to empathise with people who made decisions I couldn’t understand or life choices I wouldn’t make for myself. It has become a pillar of the contemporary #ownvoices SW canon, with very good reason.


On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On Writing could easily replace most high-school or first-year writing and communications classes (at the very least, it should be assigned reading for them all). I think, perhaps, the reason that it’s not is that Stephen King has long been unfairly maligned in academia as a “genre” writer. Because his books have ghosts and ghoulies and beasties, they’re not “real” literature, and as such his memoir-slash-self-help-guide to writing well couldn’t POSSIBLY have anything worthy to teach us… Obviously, that’s complete nonsense.

Even if you have no interest in “being a writer”, there’s still much you can learn from this book. King offers insights into the nature of determination, motivation, persistence, and resilience. And I have no doubt that you’ll call his style advice to mind when you’re writing an email or a book review blog (ahem). It’s a concise guide to writing and to overcoming obstacles, without the gimmicky nonsense that too-often populates the “self help” section.

Bonus recommendation: If you’re interested in writing, or in creativity, or in simply living your life better and looking at things a different way, you should definitely check out Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. Or, failing that, you can watch her TED talk.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Citizen: An American Lyric is perhaps one of the most mind-bending books I’ve read in recent years (and that includes A Brief History Of Time and other traditionally-intense tomes). It taught me a lot, in two different ways. Firstly, it changed my idea of what “poetry” could be. Citizen isn’t just page after page of rhyming couplets, or haikus, or even a verse novel. It’s a multi-media experience. It incorporates photography, film, news media, prose – like a delicious soup made from everything you can find in your fridge, left to simmer for hours. On another level altogether, it taught me a lot about race, privilege, and visibility, particularly in terms of micro-aggressions (yes, a buzzword, but one made tangible through Rankine’s art).

Of course, the onus should never be upon people of colour to “teach” white people about race and privilege, but it behooves us to read, learn, and understand from their work. Citizen is one of the best-selling books of poetry of my generation, and I’m sure (I’m yet to see any evidence for it, but I struggle to believe it wouldn’t be the case) that sales have re-surged in light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month. This book is a testament of lived experience, and it has a lot to teach everyone, of all races and creeds.

Bonus recommendation(s): If you’re looking for more local (Australian) collections that deal with race and justice, I cannot recommend highly enough Blakwork by Alison Whittaker, and Throat by Ellen Van Neerven.

The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

When I picked up The Mosquito, I was really only looking for the answer to one particular question: why do mosquitoes exist? It’s something I’ve wondered for a while, but I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory answer. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not an essential food source for any other animal, they’re not crucial for pollination of fruits, they really serve no purpose at all other than spreading disease and annoying the shit out of us. But I digress!

My point is that The Mosquito taught me so much more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t so much a history of the creature itself, but a detailed examination of the ways in which it has altered the course of human history. Wars have been won and lost based on vulnerability to the mosquito’s attack. It’s literally “my kingdom for the mosquito”, all the way through. I learnt more about the Romans, more about Napoleon, and even more about conflicts of the 20th century through The Mosquito than I have any other book. And that’s not to mention the biology, the evolutionary theory, the epidemiology…

Going Dark by Julia Ebner

Going Dark - Julia Ebner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Extremism” is a word used so often that it has almost come to lose its meaning. We talk about “extremists” being “radicalised online”, but what does that actually mean? Julia Ebner works at a “counter-extremism” think tank, so it seems that she’s pretty well positioned to tell us. What’s more, she actually spent years going undercover in the world of these “online extremists” – in her free time! – and Going Dark is an account of what she learned.

I’d imagine most people pick up a book like this thinking “I could never be radicalised online”. Maybe, if you’re a particularly curious individual, you idly wonder whether you could without giving it any serious thought. The fact is, it’s easier than you realise for your thoughts to be molded and directed by dark corners of the internet. Ebner shows, in terrifying detail, the ways that human vulnerabilities and emotional sore-spots can be exploited and capitalised upon by extreme ideologies.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Library Book should really come with a warning: “you’re going to annoy the shit out of your family, friends, and colleagues with fun facts for the next few weeks”. It’s often shelved in the true crime section, which I suppose is where it belongs, as it is the result of Susan Orlean’s investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986. Still, within that story, Orlean manages to relate a history of libraries and books, of city planning and management, of arson and police investigation, of community support services and social justice…

I made the mistake of reading this one on a road trip, so not only did I learn a lot, but everyone in the car was forced to learn a lot along with me. Did you know that the Los Angeles Central Library fire was so hot that it caused book covers to pop like popcorn? Did you know that food manufacturers volunteered freezer space to prevent wet books from molding? Did you know that more books were damaged by efforts to put out the fire than by the fire itself? You’ll read The Library Book and learn something new, or I’ll eat my copy, cover and all.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a provocative title. I still remember the time, back in 2017, when Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was suddenly saturating my Twitter feed. Folks were upset, folks were confused, folks were enthusiastic, folks were relieved – and, in the past three years, the opinions continue to flow forth. This is the book that Marlon James said was “begging to be written”, one that explores the intersection of race, gender, and class in Britain (though its message is universally resonant).

The main reason to read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is to learn about the undue burden that minorities (BAME, to use the British parlance) carry in “teaching” others about racial justice, and the structural inequalities that prop up white privilege. Even though it might seem, at first, to be written with a specific audience in mind, I think this is one of the books that will teach you something new regardless of your background or circumstances.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In our anthropocentric (human-centred) minds, sometimes we forget that we are animals, subject to the same forces of nature as every other creature on this planet. Sapiens uses fields of evolutionary science – anthropology, biology, psychology – to explain how humans came to dominate our environment, and what the past can teach us about the possibilities for our collective future. Harari explains all the ways we are unique, as a species, and all the ways in which we’re really not all that different.

This book is based on a series of lectures given by Harari at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and it was first published in English in 2014 (“translated by the author with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman”, #NameTheTranslator!). So, while some of its observations might feel a little dated, it’s still got a lot to teach us about our species (plus, there’s a follow up – Homo Deus – published in 2017). And don’t worry, despite its origins, it’s not particularly academic or dense – it was definitely written for a wide audience, using language that we can all understand.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics - Stephen D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Freakonomics has become one of the contemporary classics of popular non-fiction, and with good reason. Levitt and Dubner manage to meld the seemingly-dry and dull field of economics with the engaging familiar territory of pop culture, to help us better understand why and how we make the decisions we do – and, by extension, why and how the world works. Levitt is a renowned economist by trade, but he was never afraid to step outside the traditions and conventions of the field and look at topics that his colleagues wouldn’t consider worthy of attention. That’s what makes this such a fascinating read, guaranteed to teach you something new (even if you normally switch off the news when an economist comes on).

Since Freakonomics was first published in 2005, it has been reprinted, revised, republished, had a follow-up (SuperFreakonomics), continued in blog form, transformed into a bi-weekly radio/podcast program, and even been adapted to documentary film. Levitt and Dubner even formed their own consultancy firm off the back of the book’s success, with Nobel laureates among the founding partners. Not bad for a book based on statistical analysis, eh?

Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are, at best, guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served women (and AFAB people) for far too long.

It’s a personal subject for Jackson: in 2001, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and then, in 2015, adenomyosis. She has spent years researching these conditions, and the broader medical system in which they are studied and treated. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. Pain And Prejudice gives voice to hundreds of years of silent suffering.


Well, that should be enough book-learnin’ to keep us going for a while, don’t you think? No? Drop your recommendations for books that will teach us all something new in the comments!

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