Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

100 Fun Facts About Books and Authors

Exactly what it says on the tin: here are 100 fun facts about books and authors. Enjoy!

100 Fun Facts About Books And Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins
  1. Jane Austen had a knack for brewing her own beer. She used molasses to give her brews a sweeter taste.
  2. Thomas Pynchon’s middle name is Ruggles.
  3. Fredrik Backman was a blogger before A Man Called Ove became a bestseller sleeper hit.
  4. 451 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t actually the temperature at which paper burns. Bradbury was misinformed when he was choosing a title for Fahrenheit 451; that’s actually the temperature at which paper will combust.
  5. Harper Lee was Truman Capote’s assistant when he was writing In Cold Blood. She was in charge of managing his 8,000 pages of notes, and interviewed townspeople who were too suspicious to tell him anything.
  6. The Netflix adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton is the most-watched series in the platform’s history. Over 82 million households have tuned in.
  7. Suzanne Collins claims she came up with the idea for The Hunger Games when she was channel surfing, flicking between footage of the war in Iraq and reality TV.
  8. Agatha Christie disappeared for nearly two weeks in 1926, after her first husband told her he wanted a divorce. Her car was found abandoned, 15,000 volunteers undertook a manhunt, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle consulted a psychic. She was found in a hotel under an assumed name (borrowed from her husband’s mistress), and never offered any explanation, not even in her autobiography.
  9. Daniel Defoe was terrible with money. He was in-and-out of debtors prison for most of his life, and died while (probably) in hiding from his creditors.
  10. In her youth, Gillian Flynn worked odd jobs, including one where she was required to “dress up as a giant yogurt cone who wore a tuxedo”.
  11. Hans Christian Andersen was a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but the admiration was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but Andersen drastically overstayed his welcome. Upon his departure, Dickens taped up a note in the room that read: “Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”
  12. When Stephen Hawking turned in his first draft of A Brief History Of Time, his publisher gave him some advice. They said that book sales would be halved for every mathematical equation that he included in the manuscript. Hawking went away and removed all equations bar one (E=MC2). The book went on to sell over 25 million copies.
  13. James Joyce wrote with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat. This is likely attributable to his notoriously poor eyesight, for which he had twenty-five surgeries over the course of his life.
  14. After a severe car accident, Stephen King‘s lawyer purchased the vehicle that hit him, “to prevent it from appearing on eBay”. The car was later crushed in a car yard, and King was reportedly disappointed that he didn’t get to smash it himself.
  15. The Little Prince is the most-translated French book in the world, available in over 300 languages.
  16. David Sedaris’s essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, was all set to be adapted for the screen, with a completed script ready for production. Sedaris withdrew the rights after one of his siblings expressed concern about how their family would be portrayed.
  17. Robert Louis Stevenson deliberately left out the definite article (“the”) from his title of Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Most editions now include it, to make the title grammatically correct.
  18. Hanya Yanagihara, her editor, and her agent all expected that A Little Life “would not sell well”. It defied their expectations.
  19. After publishing The Book Thief, Markus Zusak was able to support himself and his family on the royalties alone, for thirteen years. His next novel, Bridge Of Clay, is the only book he has published in his children’s lifetimes.
  20. Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died on the same day, 22 November 1963. Unfortunately, their deaths were overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
  1. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record for being the most-often rejected book to go on to become a best-seller. Robert M. Pirsig received 121 rejections before a publisher agreed to buy his book.
  2. Louisa May Alcott criticised Mark Twain for The Adventure Of Huckleberry Finn‘s crudeness. She said that if he couldn’t “think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them”.
  3. Edith Wharton’s father’s family was very wealthy and influential. Their surname was Jones, and it is said that this is where we get the saying “to keep up with the Joneses”.
  4. Paulo Coelho wrote The Alchemist in just two weeks. He said he was able to get it down on paper quickly because the book was “already written in his soul”.
  5. Kazuo Ishiguro is a “great admirer of Bob Dylan”, who won the Nobel Prize the year before he did.
  6. Tayari Jones had the idea for An American Marriage when she was eavesdropping on a nearby couple in a shopping mall. She told The Paris Review: “I overheard a young couple arguing in the mall in Atlanta. The woman, who was splendidly dressed, and the man—he looked okay. But she looked great! And she said to him, “You know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he shot back, “This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.” And I was like, You know, I don’t know him, but I know she’s probably right.”
  7. William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks, between midnight and 4AM, while working at a power plant. He said that he did not change a single word of the draft between completion and publication.
  8. Andre Aciman was raised in a multi-lingual household, speaking predominantly French. Family members also spoke Italian, Greek, Ladino (Old Spanish), and Arabic.
  9. The Call Of The Wild was inspired by Jack London’s own extended stay in the Klondike (where, he said, he “found himself”). He was forced to leave when he developed scurvy, as a result of the lack of fresh produce available in the Arctic in winter months.
  10. Despite the anti-war and anti-capitalist themes of Catch-22, Joseph Heller spoke positively of his own time in the army during World War II, and said that he “never had a bad officer” during his time of a bombardier.
  11. J.D. Salinger became a vegetarian after his father tried to pressure him to enter the meat-import business, and he spent a short time working in slaughterhouses in Vienna and Poland.
  12. Toni Morrison wrote her Masters thesis on “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s treatment of the alienated”.
  13. Terry Pratchett’s signature fashion style was “large black hats… more that of urban cowboy than city gent”.
  14. Brad Pitt optioned the film rights for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. A writer was attached to the project back in 2011, but as of 2021 production has not commenced.
  15. Protesting the Government of Portugal’s decidedly negative reaction to his book The Gospel Of Jesus Christ, José Saramago left his home country and lived the rest of his life in exile on the Spanish island of Lanzarote.
  16. Anaïs Nin wrote her erotic short stories – published posthumously in the collection Delta Of Venus – for the “personal use” of a “private collector”. The collector paid her a dollar a page, and told her to stick to the pornography, “no analysis, no philosophy”.
  17. John Green foolishly promised to personally sign every pre-ordered copy of The Fault In Our Stars. He ended up having to sign every single copy of the first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received.
  18. Today, Bram Stoker is best known as the author of Dracula, but during his lifetime he was only known as the “personal assistant of actor Sir Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, which Irving owned”. He also (probably) died of syphilis.
  19. Veronica Roth wrote her debut novel, Divergent, while on winter break from her studies at Northwestern. She sold the book before graduation, and film rights sold before the book’s release.
  20. Alice Walker coined the term “womanist”, in 1983. She intended it to mean simply “a black feminist or a feminist of colour”.
  1. V.C. Andrews insisted (even after her death, via a surviving relative) that Flowers In The Attic was based on a true story. She claimed that she developed a crush on her doctor, who – along with his siblings – had been locked away for 6 years to preserve his family’s wealth. This claim has never been verified, and is widely disputed.
  2. George R.R. Martin has said that comic book legend Stan Lee is “the greatest literary influence on [him], even more than Shakespeare or Tolkien”.
  3. Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford. She adopted the name Toni for her saint – Anthony – at age 12, after converting to Catholicism. Sadly, she came to regret using a pen name. She worried that it made her sound “like a teenager” and it she felt “ruined” by it. Still, her closest friends and family continued to call her Chloe until her death, and the pseudonym allowed her to keep her professional and personal lives separate.
  4. Stephen Chbosky not only wrote but also directed the film adaptation of his young adult novel The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and received a standing ovation.
  5. Anita Loos was Hollywood’s first salaried screenwriter.
  6. Thriller author Paula Hawkins has written romantic comedies under the name Amy Silver.
  7. Though Nora Ephron was “culturally and emotionally Jewish”, she said that she was not religious. While promoting her final film before her death (Julie & Julia, based on Julie Powell’s blog and memoir of the same name), Ephron said “You can never have too much butter – that is my belief. If I have a religion, that’s it.”
  8. John Steinbeck’s wife was the one who came up with the title for The Grapes Of Wrath.
  9. Margaret Atwood says that her spelling is terrible.
  10. Liane Moriarty wrote season two of the mini-series adaptation of her novel Big Little Lies with Meryl Streep in mind specifically for the new character Mary Louise. Streep didn’t even read the script before agreeing to sign on for the role.
  11. Italo Calvino’s mother chose his first name to commemorate his Italian heritage (he was born in Cuba). However, as the family moved back to Italy while Calvino was still quite young, he effectively grew up with the same name as his country, which he thought sounded “belligerently nationalist”.
  12. Douglas Adams claimed that the concept and title of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy were inspired by a bender. He was hitchhiking around Europe and one night, lying drunk in a field (if I had a dollar), he got to thinking about his mate’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe and mused that there should be a version written for the galaxy.
  13. Cormac McCarthy wrote on the same typewriter for over 50 years. It later sold for $250,000.
  14. When Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar was scheduled for demolition, he reportedly tore a urinal from the wall in the men’s room and took it for his own, saying that he had “pissed so much money into it” that it was his by rights.
  15. William Golding’s manuscript of Lord Of The Flies was initially rejected by his eventual publisher, Faber, with their in-house professional reader calling it an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atomic bomb on the colonies and a group of children who land in the jungle near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull. Pointless”.
  16. Australian scientists were such great fans of Andy Weir’s science-fiction novel The Martian that they named a new species of bush tomato after the main character: Solanum watneyi.
  17. Samuel Beckett completed the final edits on his novel Murphy from a Parisian hospital bed. He’d been stabbed after declining an offer of companionship from a notorious French pimp (who went by the street name Prudent). James Joyce paid for Beckett’s medical care.
  18. Despite reaching the peak of international literary fame, Elena Ferrante has remained anonymous for nearly two decades. She has said in (rare) interviews that anonymity is a pre-condition of her work.
  19. Sally Rooney was the star of her university debate club, and was top debater at the European University Debating Championships in 2013.
  20. Jack Kerouac didn’t learn to drive until he was 34 years old, and he never held a formal driver’s license.
  1. Gulliver’s Travels is the most-widely-held book of Irish literature in the world’s libraries.
  2. Ayn Rand dedicated her novel Atlas Shrugged to her husband, and her lover – two different men! In her author bio, she added that her husband (Frank O’Connor) had the values of character she sought in a man, while her lover (Nathaniel Branden) was her “intellectual heir”, an ideal reader with as rational and independent a mind as she could conceive of, whom she met through a fan letter he sent her.
  3. Victor Hugo really struggled with procrastination. While writing The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he had his servants take away all of his clothes so that he wouldn’t be tempted to go out during the day when he was supposed to be working, effectively forcing him to write in the nude.
  4. In an essay, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn admitted to sadistic childhood impulses like “stunning ants and feeding them to spiders”.
  5. Travel writer Bill Bryson has been eligible for British citizenship, but avoided it for most of his life, claiming that he was “too cowardly” to take the citizenship test. When he eventually worked up the courage, he passed.
  6. Jennifer Egan has said that her book A Visit From The Goon Squad was inspired by two main sources: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and HBO’s The Sopranos.
  7. The mathematics textbook that Charles Ludtwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) used in school has survived the intervening years intact. An inscription in the front, written in Latin, translates to: “This book belongs to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson: hands off!”
  8. Neil Gaiman and musician Tori Amos are very close friends; he is godfather to her daughter, and they have referenced each other in their work often.
  9. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger Of A Single Story, is one of the top ten most-viewed TED Talks of all time with more than fifteen million views.
  10. James Joyce loved the work of playwright Henrik Ibsen so much, he learned Norwegian in order to send Ibsen a letter in his native tongue.
  11. F. Scott Fitzgerald was named for Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for The Star Spangled Banner.
  12. John Steinbeck wrote a werewolf novel. It’s called Murder At Full Moon, and it has never been published. A copy of the manuscript is held in the archives of the University of Texas. It will enter the public domain in 2043.
  13. A French soldier claimed that a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim saved his life. He had the book in his pocket when he was shot, and said that the bullet stopped “twenty pages from his heart”.
  14. Mark Twain was once the next-door neighbour of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
  15. Walt Whitman wrote a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, for the money. He admitted later that he was drunk when he wrote it.
  16. The musical Cabaret is an adaptation of a play called I Am A Camera, which in turn is an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye To Berlin.
  17. Aldous Huxley taught George Orwell’s French class at Eton College in 1917.
  18. Gabriel García Márquez never sold the film rights to One Hundred Years Of Solitude, because “(t)hey would cast someone like Robert Redford and most of us do not have relatives who look like Robert Redford.”
  19. Oscar Wilde’s last words were reportedly about the wallpaper in the room where he was confined to his sick bed, which he hated. He reportedly said something to the effect of “my wallpaper and I are fighting… one or other of us has got to go.”
  20. On the eve of their marriage, Leo Tolstoy gave his wife-to-be his complete and unabridged diaries, detailing his sexual history (including his illegitimate child by a serf on his estate), and insisted she read them.
  1. One of Ali Smith’s part-time jobs prior to writing plays was “lettuce cleaner”.
  2. The iconic 2000 film Coyote Ugly was based on an essay written by Elizabeth Gilbert, about her time working as a bartender at the Coyote Ugly table dancing bar in the East Village. Gilbert married a man she met at that bar, and it was her divorce from him that inspired the memoir for which she is most famous, Eat Pray Love.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates said she trained herself to be a writer by “writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them”.
  4. E.B. White has never revealed his motivation for writing children’s classic Charlotte Web, saying “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze,”.
  5. Stella Gibbons was ostracised from literary circles in her time, mostly because she dared to parody D.H. Lawrence. Virginia Woolf in particular took issue with her, writing to Elizabeth Bowen after Gibbons won a literary prize: “I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”
  6. As he was writing, Kevin Kwan shared an incomplete draft of Crazy Rich Asians with an editor friend, who complained that he had “ruined her Thanksgiving dinner” because she couldn’t put the manuscript down to finish preparing the meal.
  7. To avoid the ire of Soviet censors, Boris Pasternak had to smuggle his manuscript of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to his Italian publisher. He is reported to have quipped “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad,” as he handed it over.
  8. We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Don Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of the character’s early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase is translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”.
  9. Alexander McCall Smith put his significant royalties from his prolific literary career to good use by purchasing a chain of uninhabited islands, the Cairns of Coll. He intends to hold them in trust, to ensure that they are “kept in perpetuity as a sanctuary for wildlife – for birds and seals and all the other creatures to which they are home.”
  10. Zadie Smith’s two younger brothers are both rappers.
  11. bell hooks decided to use the “unconventional” lower case for her pen name to distinguish herself from her great-grandmother (from whom the name is taken) and to emphasis what she considers to be most important (the work, not the writer).
  12. Gone With The Wind sold a million copies in its first year of publication (1936), despite its “unprecedented” high price of $3, and widespread hardship in the wake of the Great Depression.
  13. Yuval Noah Harari does not own a smartphone.
  14. Maya Angelou used a hotel room as her study. She asked management to remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles.
  15. The publication of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil led to an increase of 46% in tourism to Savannah.
  16. Jodi Picoult has written several issues of Wonder Woman.
  17. Diana Gabaldon believes that time travel is possible, and on that basis that the Loch Ness monster could exist: “All you need is a time-portal under Loch Ness, which would occasionally allow a prehistoric creature to pass through it.”
  18. Isabel Allende once had a job translating romance novels from English to Spanish, but she was fired for changing dialogue to make the heroines “sound more intelligent”. She also changed the ending of Cinderella.
  19. When he was ten years old, Amor Towles threw a message in a bottle into the Atlantic Ocean. It was found by Harrison Salisbury, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of the New York Times, who responded. The two of them kept up correspondence for many years.
  20. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. This may be where he drew his inspiration for the famed punishment of his protagonist of The Scarlet Letter (to wear a scarlet A, for Adultress, on her chest).

Mythos – Stephen Fry

Unlike the Fry & Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster fans out there, I’m most familiar with Stephen Fry from his work on BBC panel quiz show QI. I’ve heard he’s quite a good writer, as well as a rather intelligent bloke, but instead of picking up one of his autobiographical works I decided to start with Mythos, his “vivid retelling” of some of the major Greek myths. Apparently Fry has a lifelong passion for the subject; he says in the Foreword that it all began with a copy of Tales from Ancient Greece that he had as a child.

Mythos - Stephen Fry - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Mythos here.
(Let me dispel the myths about affiliate links for you: they’re on this page, they’ll take you to another site and if you make a purchase there, I’ll earn a small commission. That’s it!)

I’m about as far from a Greek myths tragic as you could imagine – I haven’t even read Circe. I brought to Mythos only what I’d absorbed through assorted and infrequent pop-culture references. Fry seems to have foreseen readers like me, and reassures us: “You don’t need to know anything to read this book… certainly no ‘classical education’ is called for,” (page vii).

He also acknowledges other cultures and sources of mythology, but says that he focuses on the Greek “because it has survived with a detail, richness, life and colour that distinguish it from other mythologies” (page viii). He derives the myths he’s chosen to retell from a few key sources (Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and he acknowledges those, too. The only thing he fails to mention until the very end is his cut-and-pasting: these myths are so intricately woven, they defy our conventional storytelling beats, so Fry has had to arrange them into a timeline of sorts for coherence’s sake.

“As if such a consistent and stable a device as a timeline could ever be used to delineate the complex, kaleidoscopic and disorderly unfolding of Greek myth… I have, of course, had to play about with timelines in order to attempt a coherent narrative.”

Mythos (page 401-2)

All of the maps and family trees in the front evoke Game Of Thrones-esque fantasy, and that theme continues throughout. From the beginning, there’s a lot of fighting and fucking, a lot of incest and polyamory and MLM. A lot of names are thrown at you very quickly, but Fry helpfully highlights the ones that are particularly important and gives you explicit permission to forget the ones that aren’t.

Hera was my favourite of the gods and goddesses in Mythos, unafraid to inflict her wrath on her “all powerful” husband (Zeus, King of Gods, et cetera) for his philandering and general ridiculousness. I also took a particular shining to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. I was disappointed, however, to find no reference to a god of booklovers (though, I suppose they didn’t really have books, so I suppose that’s forgivable).

Fry offers a lot of linguistic insight (clearly another pet subject of his). It turns out the Greek gods are where we get all kinds of words (chronology, atlas, narcissism), and even imagery like that we associate with the Grim Reaper. The footnotes throughout are particularly illuminating, fleshing out a lot of the myths’ relevance to each other and to today’s world – so don’t sleep on them!

But don’t think that Fry lets his intimidating intellect overwhelm the stories of Mythos. He keeps the language colloquial, the banter humourous, and goes to great pains to emphasise the contemporary resonance of the Greek myths. He makes the gods tangible and relatable to us in the 21st century (e.g., Cadmus and Harmonia as the “iconic power couple”), which makes Mythos an infinitely more entertaining read than some of the other re-tellings you may have encountered. He certainly made the stories as interesting as they could possibly be to a reader like me, who otherwise wouldn’t have taken much notice.

I’ve heard endless (glowing!) recommendations for the Mythos audiobook (Fry is a talented and popular voice narrator, and he reads this one himself), but unfortunately it’s not available through my library’s app. Still, I’d be keen to give it a listen if I get the chance, and I’d be willing to hazard a recommendation to you, too, if that’s your preferred format.

All told, Mythos is a fun and fact-filled read. It might be more of a beginner’s guide version of Greek mythology, but I reckon even the more passionate Greek myth readers could read it just for fun.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Mythos:

  • “Atheists shouldn’t write books about myths – they generally tend to think the people “invented” them. They didn’t – myths are evocations of inwardly experienced interactions with, for lack of a better term, higher worlds. That’s why they have such staying power. I found Fry’s Mythos snarky and unpleasant – like sitting through a burlesque show during Easter Mass. The Greeks deserve better.” – P Jerome
  • “It’s quarantine and everything sucks. This is the only thing I like. Thank god for Stephen Fry and thank god for greek mythology.” – Babrams
  • “It was interesting, but alittle boring.” – thalia becak
  • “It was a gift, which has not yet been red, but my adult son expressed enthusiasm.” – Wendikins

7 Books About Non-Traditional Families

There are certain television moments that stick in your head. One that sticks in mine is Carrie Bickmore, host of The Project (a current affairs/pop-culture program here in Australia), responding to a book by former Australian senator and total drop-kick Cory Bernardi. He suggested that kids of “non-traditional” (i.e., queer, single-parent, etc.) families were more likely to have “criminal tendencies”. Bickmore’s response was simply to say “I grew up in a non-traditional family and I’m currently raising a son in a non-traditional family, so he can get stuffed.” The message really stuck with me, and proof, meet pudding: Bickmore still has her career, Bernardi lost his. My point is, I wanted to put together a list of books about non-traditional families, the kind that fools like Bernardi might look down upon but who share the kind of love to which we all should aspire.

7 Books About Non-Traditional Families - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
(My non-traditional income stream is the tiny commission I make when you purchase a book through an affiliate link on this page, just so you know!)

Mad About The Boy by Maggie Alderson

Mad About The Boy - Maggie Alderson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If I were the kind of person who believed in guilty pleasure reads (I’m not, by the way – we should never feel guilty about pleasure!), Mad About The Boy would be mine. I picked it up at a random book sale a hundred years ago, and I’ve re-read it dozens of times since. When Antonia’s husband leaves her for a man, her life falls apart. Thank goodness for Percy, her beloved brother-in-law who sweeps in and makes her world magical again. Gay Uncle Perky (as Antonia’s son calls him) stitches this “broken” family back together again, and while there’s perhaps nothing traditional about a family that features a flamboyant globe-trotting uncle, a vile hairdresser named Greg, and a private-investigator-slash-martial-arts-guru, it’s hard to imagine one with more love.

New Animal by Ella Baxter

New Animal - Ella Baxter - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Amelia’s family is like a house that’s been renovated in different styles, a few times over. Her estranged father lives in Tasmania, but she feels safe enough to flee to him when her world comes crashing down. Her mother and step-father are happy housing her, her brother and the other members of his throuple (yes, throuple) under their roof. They all work in the family’s mortuary and funeral planning business, Amelia being a particularly talented corpse cosmetician. New Animal is a sex-and-death novel, but it’s one unlike any you’ve read before. In addition to the higgledy-piggledy relationships, it’s refreshing to see a book about kink (despite its problems) making it in the mainstream.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David McDonald

When We Were Vikings - Andrew David MacDonald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zelda is 21 years old. She lives with her older brother, Gert, and she’s obsessed with Vikings. Not the TV show, or the football team – literal Vikings, the Norse people who kicked around Northern Europe up until the 11th century. Zelda’s a little bit different, and she knows that, but with the help of her brother she’s figured out how to get by in the world. She’s ferociously protective of her family of two, and she’ll do anything to help her brother get out of trouble. Despite dealing with some very dark themes (trigger warnings for violence, abuse, and rape), When We Were Vikings is a surprisingly charming and endearing novel from debut author Andrew David MacDonald.

The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald

The Nancys - RWR McDonald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tippy Chan is the only Asian kid in her small New Zealand town – that might be enough to make her and her family outsiders, but there’s other stuff, too. Her dad is dead, for one, and her mother has removed every photo of him from the house. Her closest extended “family” is Mrs Brown next door, and the scary chain-smoking would-be-beauty-queen granddaughter Melanie. When Tippy Chan’s mother wins a two-week cruise, her non-traditional family expands to include her Uncle Pike (who bears a startling resemblance to Santa Claus) and his fabulous boyfriend, Devon, fresh off the plane from Sydney. Together, they form The Nancys, a group dedicated to solving the mystery of a local school teacher’s murder (and they do makeovers, on the side).

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Argonauts is a work of “autotheory” (academic writing combined with and supported by memoir), and it has become one of the definitive books about non-traditional families in the 21st century. Nelson and her partner, Harry, forged a family through the fires of IVF and gender-affirming treatments. Harry brought a step-child to their union, Nelson eventually became pregnant, and the four of them now live together in happy harmony – despite the confusion, judgement, and (especially sadly) outright hostility their family faces from certain (ahem) parts of society. Nelson brings her critical mind and wealth of knowledge to this book, in which she examines gender, sexuality, motherhood, and the family unit.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

It’s a little difficult to explain what exactly makes the family at the heart of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves non-traditional without dropping a massive spoiler… so you’ll just have to trust me. Both of Roesmary’s older siblings are notably absent (one apparently in some kind of legal trouble, the other vanished mysteriously some time ago), and her relationship with her parents stinks. But why? Fowler’s story of this highly unusual family history will shock you in the best possible way, and force you to reconsider everything you think you know about what it means to be a “family”. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

You could hardly call A Little Life an uplifting read, it’s notoriously depressing and I must offer trigger warnings for everything you can imagine. But despite all the misery, it’s also about finding family, and learning to surround yourself with people who support and uplift you, even when it ain’t easy. Jude St Francis had a very (very!) rough start in life, and things didn’t improve for a long time, until he befriended three boys in college. Those friendships deepened and strengthened, and shaped each of the boys in ways that completely changed the courses of their respective lives. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts is a pillar of the contemporary queer canon, so frequently invoked that it’s practically become cliche. It’s the shiniest jewel in American writer Maggie Nelson’s crown. I’ve previously read her fragmentary homage Bluets (for study) and her verse memoir Jane: A Murder (for fun), so I’m not sure why I haven’t picked this one up before now. According to the blurb, it’s a “timely and genre-bending memoir that offers fresh and fierce reflections on motherhood, desire, identity, and feminism… a rigorous exploration of sexuality, gender, and notions of family,”.

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Argonauts here.
(And if you do, using an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.)

For such weighty and broad subject matter, The Argonauts is a slim tome – just 180 pages. It’s told in snippets, paragraphs, rather than chapters (clearly the poet coming out in Nelson), but there’s still a narrative thread to follow. It’s a trick that lets her tell a story but also turn on a pin when it comes to subject, sense, and style. Another note on the form: rather than using footnotes or in-text references, Nelson logs her sources in the margins, a feature that makes the reading far more smooth and I would love to see more widely adopted.

Technically speaking, The Argonauts is a work of “autotheory”, combining philosophical/academic ideas with the anecdotal evidence of memoir. Nelson explores all those lofty ideas from the blurb through the story of her romance with Harry (to whom the book is dedicated), their courtship and their making of a family. Two significant paths run parallel: Harry’s transformation as they begin taking testosterone and undergo reconstructive chest surgery, and Nelson’s as she undertakes cycles of IVF and becomes pregnant.

From the marketing and chat around The Argonauts, I’d really expected Harry’s story to get more airtime; this is the queer love story after all, about making a baby with a non-binary/masc partner. But Nelson was overwhelmingly introspective, far more focused on what was going on inside her own body. I’m a bit undecided as to whether this is a good thing or bad.

The Argonauts is not an easy read in the sense that Nelson forces you to think – really think – about everything she’s saying, but it’s full of wonderful insights perfectly expressed, like:

I get why it’s politically maddening, but I’ve also always thought it a little romantic – the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one.

The Argonauts (page 10)

I must admit, I rolled my eyes when she quoted Deluze & Parnet on page eight (page eight! if a bloke in a bar dropped those names that early in a conversation, I’d dump him on the spot), but the saving grace was that Nelson did so in a passage that perfectly depicted the discomfort of asking for pronouns and resorting to friend-assisted internet research of a paramour, to avoid asking. This is what I’m talking about, this is the vibe of The Argonauts.

What concerns me is I felt there was a certain elitism in Nelson’s expression. This isn’t Gender Queer Parenting For Dummies. She seems to assume a level of education, a familiarity with certain writers and academics (ahem-Deluze-ahem!), that readers who might benefit most from her work don’t necessarily have. That’s not to say that they (well, we) don’t or can’t understand The Argonauts, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like we’re being invited to do so.

Of course, we can’t expect every writer to write for every audience, but this isn’t marketed as an academic text. If it had been, I would have gone in with a different set of expectations and perhaps not been so disappointed or confused by the high-falootin’ talk. Still, assuming you are part of Nelson’s (perhaps subconsciously) intended audience, you’ll find The Argonauts a poignant and resonant read.

What really sticks with me, more so than any academic thought or theory, is Nelson’s love for Harry. It shines, on every page. Even when they disagree, even when they’re scared, even when things are awful. Not to be sappy about it, but Nelson’s obvious and obliterating love for Harry and their family was my favourite part of this complex and multi-faceted book, and I would say The Argonauts is worth reading for that alone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Argonauts:

  • “Maggie Nelson can write. She has some interesting ideas, but whereas some writers make you feel like you want to sit and have coffee with them, Nelson just seems exhausting.” – M. Young
  • “This book is as exhilarating as it is frustrating.” – Mary, Mary, Mary
  • “Five thumbs down” – Betty

7 Uplifting Queer Books

When I started thinking about what queer books I wanted to read for Pride this year, I realised something: nearly every book by or about a queer person on my to-be-read shelf was… well, a huge bummer. A dearth of uplifting queer books in stores and on shelves is a huge problem, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. While we should definitely make space for stories about the many unique issues that the LGBTIQA+ community face, it’s also important that we see queer folks living their best lives and getting their happily ever afters. Here’s a list of uplifting queer books to read when you need to find a little happy.

7 Uplifting Queer Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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

Arthur Less is… well, a sad sack. He’s aging disgracefully, his much-younger lover left him, and now he’s desperate to find any excuse he can to get out of going to the wedding of the aforementioned lover to a more-age-appropriate suitor. It might not sound like the stuff of uplifting reads, but Less will warm the cockles of your heart. As you follow Arthur around the world, you’ll find yourself increasingly endeared by his ridiculous self-indulgence (not to mention self-pity). Even if you can’t quite get on board with that, Greer’s satirical skewering of the publishing industry and the creative gig economy is sure to give you a chuckle. Read my full review of Less here.

The Nancys by R.W.R. McDonald

The Nancys - RWR McDonald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Tippy Chan’s mother wins a ticket on a two-week cruise, her Uncle Pike and his new Sydney boyfriend return to their small New Zealand hometown to supervise the eleven-year-old. They don’t have the best grip on what’s “appropriate” for children, they don’t object to a mid-morning drink, and they insist on giving make-overs when they’re bored… but Tippy loves them. Together, they form a club – The Nancys – inspired by the Nancy Drew detective novels, in an effort to uncover the truth of what happened in a grisly local crime. This is a hilarious and heart-warming novel about found family and how good life can be on the outside looking in.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can’t think of a book – queer or otherwise – that has made me snort-laugh more than Me Talk Pretty One Day. No matter the subject, be it his upbringing or his dalliances with performance art or his (mis)adventures learning French, Sedaris’s observational comedy hits a bullseye every time. Though his partner Hugh only gets the occasional look-in, this is a collection of memoir essays dripping with queer sensibility and sass. Sedaris is the brilliant, quick-witted gay uncle/role model we all wish we’d had as a kid. He’ll definitely sneak you booze when your mum’s not looking (but he’ll also write an essay about the ridiculous stuff you say later). Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Last Stop - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins

McQuiston’s debut novel, Red White & Royal Blue, was a smash hit (especially for the #Bookstagram crowd). You’d expect a bit of a sophomore slump after such a smash-hit uplifting queer read, but One Last Stop doesn’t disappoint. Cynical twenty-something August is new in the Big Apple, but she’s not expecting fairy tales. Then, she spots a beautiful, mysterious woman on the train, wearing a leather jacket – Jane. Her subway crush becomes the best part of August’s day, but there’s something she doesn’t know about the woman who has captured her cold heart, something that could doom their love story before it even begins… A touching, fun romance that will have you looking like the love-hearts-for-eyes emoji by the end.

Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Simon is your average teenage kid. His family and friends are wonderful progressive people, but he’s still hesitant to come out – it’s a big deal, and he’s not sure he’s ready. He’s got school, he’s got hobbies… and he’s also got a secret, a love affair carried out via email with another anonymous gay kid from his class. Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda will take you (gay or straight) right back to the heady intoxication of first love. You’ll be on the edge of your seat all the way through, but in the best possible way: will Simon come out? Who is his secret love? It’s romantic, it’s silly, it’s touching, and it’ll make you smile.

Finding Nevo by Nevo Zisin

Finding Nevo - Nevo Zisin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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 a warts-and-all memoir about becoming who you are, maybe a few times over. It would be the perfect uplifting queer book for the young person in your life who needs to see that it does, indeed, get better. Read my full review of Finding Nevo here.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

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

On the face of it, Reckoning might not seem like it belongs on a list of uplifting queer books. Magda Szubanski didn’t have it easy: her father was a spy, she inherited some serious trauma, and she spent most of her career hiding her sexuality from the harsh glare of the public eye. But the thing is, Szubanski has a talent for making lemonade from even the bitterest of lemons. Everyone who’s watched her show or seen her comedy knows that she shines bring and lifts the mood of every room she enters. Her memoir is no exception. Pick this one up when you need a dose of real-life inspiration from a queer woman who has been through it all.

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