Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

10 Brilliant Writers To Follow On Twitter

I think one of the greatest tragedies of our time is that Oscar Wilde never had Twitter. I realise that makes me sound like the most millennial millennial that ever millennial-ed, but seriously! Take a look over his body of work (I reviewed The Picture of Dorian Gray this week, by the way), and you’ll quickly realise that his Twitter feed would have been absolute fire. The good news is that today’s writers do have Twitter, and I can tell you right now that they would have made him proud! Whether you’ve been Tweeting for years or you’re just now setting up your account, here’s my list of 10 brilliant writers to follow on Twitter.

10 Brilliant Writers to Follow on Twitter - grey lettering overlaid on blue image of a hand holding a phone with the Twitter log in screen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing)

If you haven’t seen copies of Little Fires Everywhere… well, everywhere, then you haven’t been paying attention. Celeste Ng’s success is well-deserved, of course, but her Twitter feed is criminally underrated. To start with, her handle is hilarious – she’s not afraid to make fun of herself and the world around her.

J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling)

I don’t care if you like Harry Potter or not, J.K. Rowling’s Twitter is a must-read. She comments on everything – from Harry Potter fan theories to politics to Eurovision – and uses the platform to make direct contact with her fans. She is a Twitter master!

Amna Saleem (@AGlasgowGirl)

I have been following Amna Saleem for quite a while, and I love finding her Tweets in my timeline, like hilarious hidden treasures. She is a comedy writer from Scotland, and her insights on race, culture, and family life will make you weep (appreciatively).


Jennifer Down (@jenniferdown)

I’m not going to lie, my fangirling over Jennifer Down is almost creepy. I got to meet her at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and it was pretty much the highlight of my year. Of course, she’s a brilliant writer (buy her incredible books here and here!), but her Twitter feed is all killer, no filler. I have literally lol’d on pretty much a daily basis ever since I followed her, she is just so damn relateable. Do yourself a favour…

Kaz Cooke (@reallykazcooke)

Kaz Cooke wrote basically the only pregnancy book worth reading (Up The Duff), and her feed is full of cartoons, hot takes, and the best of Aussie baby-boomer real talk.

Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani)

You might not have expected to see someone like Behrouz Boochani on this list, but his might just be the most important account here. Behrouz Boochani is a novelist, documentary filmmaker, and journalist, currently detained on Manus Island by the Australian government for the “crime” of seeking asylum in Australia. His Tweets are eye-opening, terrifying, and motivating. It is the best inside account we have of what is being done to asylum seekers in our name…




Roxane Gay (@rgay)

Roxane Gay just goes from strength to strength – Bad Feminist, then Hunger, then Difficult Women… and her Twitter feed is full of the same brilliance. But, if I’m being really honest, the main reason I follow Roxane Gay is right there in her bio: “If you clap, I clap back”. She promises, and she delivers. Her clap-backs are epic! I have no idea where she finds the emotional wherewithal, but damn, I’m here for it!


Rebecca Slater (@slatterbrain)

Rebecca Slater wrote my favourite piece of 2018, it is hands-down one of the best things I’ve ever read, and she is the one to fucking watch, I’m telling you! Get all over her Twitter right now, so you can say you followed her when…

Maxine Beneba Clarke (@slamup)

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Twitter feed covers just about everything of interest (to me): politics, race, haters, poetry, prose, literacy, journalism, real-talk, and – most of all – hella relateable comedy. Come for the mind that brought you The Hate Race, and stay for excerpts from conversations with children that will have you howling.

Quinn Eades (@quinn_writes)

I first discovered Quinn when he wrote what I considered to be the definitive series of essays on the Australian marriage equality vote of 2017, and I’ve been following his work ever since. His poetry is unflinching and beautiful, his book is incredible, and his Twitter feed is everything queer, sarcastic, and fantastic.




Honourable mentions, of course, to @LeeLinChinSBS and @cher – not technically authors, but two Tweeters that make the platform worthwhile, as far as I’m concerned. If either of them ever leave Twitter, I will follow them in protest. And, well, there’s me! @shereestrange


Do you have any other favourite writers on Twitter? Make sure to drop their handles below for me (or share the love over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray has a special place in my heart, but probably not for the reason you’d expect. See, I have a talent for stumbling upon amazing secondhand bookstores everywhere I go, and my honeymoon was no exception! While searching for cheap happy hours in Tel Aviv, my new husband and I discovered The Little Prince Bookstore & Cafe, where I picked up The Collins Collected Works of Oscar Wilde for just $20AUD (one of my best book bargains ever!). Every time I look at this book, I think back to that amazing trip. I decided to read The Picture of Dorian Gray next because I’d read somewhere that Oscar Wilde was a big fan of Henry James, but I tried not to hold that against him. Plus, my new husband had read the entire collected works upon our return to Australia, and he promised me I’d love it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel, kind of along the same lines as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but cleverer and more subtle. It exists in several versions, and has one hell of a history. Basically, Oscar Wilde submitted the manuscript (his only novel) to Lippincott Monthly Magazine in 1890, and they agreed to publish it… but, unbeknownst to Wilde, the editor cut out about 500 words, worried that all the references to adultery and homosexuality would offend the delicate sensibilities of the British literary critics. They managed to get offended anyway, even with the offending passages removed, and thus began a year of barbs exchanged via the British press. Wilde published pieces defending the nature of his art, while the reviewers trolled him endlessly and basically accused him of trying to turn everybody gay. In 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as a stand-alone book for the first time, and Wilde had made significant revisions (he threw in seven additional chapters, and a preface detailing his defence of the rights of the artist). This final version is the one included in the Collins collection.

So, what’s it all about? Well, the protagonist – Dorian Gray – is a beautiful young man, a lost soul in many respects. He encounters an artist, Basil Hallward, who falls head over heels in love with him (kinda – in this version, Basil is more into his art and sees Dorian as his “muse”, but in the original uncensored version it was all about the gay lust). Basil convinces Dorian to pose as the subject of a full-length oil portrait. While Dorian is posing, one of Basil’s friends drops by – one mister Lord Henry. Now, this is a deal-with-the-devil kind of story, and in this case Lord Henry = Devil, just so you know…


Dorian is seduced by Lord Henry’s hedonistic approach to life; he espouses indulging every whim and desire for beauty and sensuality. Basil finishes the portrait, and Dorian laments (out loud!) that he must grow old while the painting will remain young and beautiful forever. The magical wish-granting fairy overhears him (I assume – Wilde never really explains how this happens) and the portrait begins to age, while Dorian remains in his first blush of youth.

Dorian totally ghosts Basil (smh), and he chases after Lord Henry, living a life of immoral pleasures. Dorian has pretty much sold his soul but at least he sold it for a bunch of money and booze and drugs and sex – that’s worth it, surely! There’s no woo-y supernatural bullshit; it’s all presented as a completely normal and realistic turn of events that Dorian would remain young and beautiful while the portrait grows old and haggard, and you get totally lured into the story without needing to check your critical thinking skills at the door.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is packed with historical and literary references. I confess, I let them fly over my head for the most part – I didn’t even bother to check the footnotes most of the time (what a philistine!). You’ll probably get more out of the story if you look them up, but even if you don’t it’s abundantly clear that Mr Wilde was a very smart chap. This whole story is about aestheticism and the double-lives we all lead, and he picks it apart beautifully without once sounding like a snob. I bet he would have had some real shit to say about Instagram if he were alive today.




Wilde wasn’t just a clever cookie, he was also endlessly quotable! I felt like every page had some kind of zinger that I wanted to jot down. On page one(!), he says “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”, which is just a damn good point. On page three, he points out that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. On and on it goes…

Wilde also had a deep emotional investment in his only novel. He once said:

“Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.”

To his credit, this was a fun read! It probably doesn’t quite rise to the level of Recommended for Keeping Up With The Penguins, but I’m still in awe of it. My tl;dr summary would be this: The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth and an endless supply of drugs and liquor. Imagine how that works out…


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

  • “Early it was moving ver slow. After Dorian killed the painter, it moved and finished. Finally it came to an end. End was good.” – Musari Sub
  • “It is a book. What is not to like” – JAC
  • “This book is creepy. I had to sleep with the lights on. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.” – Lavender Murray
  • “Just read the book I hate being alive it’s a good book everyone knows it just read it amazon sucks” – Alex
  • “I ordered this for my daughter. It was as described in the description.” – Dale LePrad
  • “The entire book can be paraphrased in two sentences and you will wish it had been.” – Nickalaus Luger

 

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read

Picking which book you’re going to read next is a tricky business. I don’t know anyone with a 100% success rate. Even if you know exactly what you like, what you’re in the mood for, what gets your motor running, now and then you’re bound to fall victim to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. Still, forewarned is forearmed, and if you can recognise the mistake you’re about to make, you might just be able to squeeze your way around it. Here are the top five mistakes you make when picking your next read (and how to avoid them!).

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read (and how to avoid them!) - text overlaid on an image of library shelves stacked with books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picking A Best-Seller

It’s human nature to find yourself swayed by the “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLER” text you see emblazoned across a cover in an airport bookstore. It’s the power of social proof: when you know that a whole bunch of other people really loved something, your brain tricks you into thinking that you’ll love it too. That’s why publishers assign so much weight to best-seller rankings, and exactly why you shouldn’t! Just because a book sold a bunch a copies in really short period of time, that doesn’t mean it’s worth your money and attention.

How to avoid this mistake? Well, firstly, you should check out my list of best-sellers to avoid πŸ˜‰ Secondly, make a rule for yourself that you’ll check out the blurb and look up the author before you think about where it ranked. Hopefully, that should be enough to give your brain a healthy dose of skepticism that will steer you in the right direction.

Picking A Book Recommended By A Friend

I fell victim to this mistake myself, just this week! I read and reviewed The Golden Bowl; of course, it was on The List, so I was going to read it regardless, but I’d really hyped it up in my mind because a dear friend highly recommended it. Of course, it turned out to be an absolute stinker (in fact, I’d go as far as to say it was my least favourite of all the books I’ve read so far).

See, friends aren’t always the best gauge of what you’ll love when it comes to books. More often than not, you’ll find that they recommend books that they like, without much consideration as to what you’ll enjoy.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid this one at all. It might be a book that they’ve actually written, or one that’s moved them at a troubled time in their lives, and your obligation as a friend has to override your personal enjoyment of the book – fair enough. But otherwise, thank your friend politely, and tell them you’ll get to it someday; meanwhile, focus on book recommendations from people that you know share your tastes. That’s not always someone you know. It might be a book blogger (ahem!), or someone else that has tastes that align really closely with your own preferences. Either way, it’s a much better litmus test than what your coffee buddy recently read for their book club.


Picking Award Winners

Sure, literary awards can tell you a lot about the artistic merit of a book. I mean, a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer has a certain cachet, after all! But I’m going to say the thing that no one’s supposed to say: just because a book is “good” doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it.

I don’t know why we’re so afraid to admit this! Sometimes, a bunch of really smart people say a book is good, and we just don’t agree with them. Sometimes, an award winner just isn’t worth our time. That’s okay!

To avoid this mistake when picking your next read, try looking instead at books that have won awards for your preferred genre – there are sci-fi awards, and fantasy awards, and romance awards, and awards for just about every other genre you can imagine. That’s a much better indication of whether you’ll enjoy a book than a generic literary prize. Also maybe try looking for awards offered in formats that you know work for you (short stories, experimental fiction, etc.). You could also try looking at authors that have won multiple awards across their body of work. Better yet, you can chuck the nominee lists in the bin altogether, and just go with your instincts!

Picking Classics (Just Because They’re Classics)

I know, it’s kind of ironic that I’m calling this out as a mistake, given that I’ve created a whole blog project around reviewing the classics… however, I would argue that this makes me uniquely qualified to comment on this particular mistake you make when picking your next read. There are plenty of books that I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins purely because I “should”, and I can tell you right now that it is a huge mistake to choose a book on that basis alone.

Much like winning an award, standing the test of time is no guarantee that a book is going to be one that you’ll enjoy, or even one that’s worth your time and money. I think it’s great to read the classics and everyone should give it a go, but try looking for one that will engage you! Look at the blurbs and reviews online, keep an eye out for ones that sound similar to contemporary reads that you’ve enjoyed, and maybe look out for characters, plots and time periods that interest you.




Picking A Book Because You Liked The Movie

At the risk of stating the obvious, I gotta say it: films and books are completely different formats. How you experience a story changes dramatically between the page and the screen, even if the plot and the characters are exactly the same. I know that the generally-accepted wisdom says to read the book before you see the movie, but sometimes it happens the other way around; surely it makes sense to go back and read the book anyway, right? Wrong!

Take, for instance, my own feelings about The Hunger Games. I quite enjoyed the films, but I felt kind of “meh” about the original book. This comes down to the narration, of all things. See, the Hunger Games books were narrated in the first person, with all the “oh, who do I love? woe is me!” internal monologue of the teenage girl protagonist. The movies, however, by their very nature, removed that element from the story, making it much more enjoyable and engaging for me.

The trick here is simply to reject all the pressure to “read the book” – you should free to enjoy the movie or television adaptation for what it is, safe in the knowledge that the book might just fall short of the high standard that’s been set. And I know this isn’t a popular opinion about booklovers, but sometimes the movie adaptations don’t suck!


Have you made any huge mistakes in picking your next read? Did you ever think you’d really like a book for one of these reasons, and end up hating it? Warn me off it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Golden Bowl – Henry James

Here it is, folks: the only time that I will review two books from The List by the same author, back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five… turns out, it wasn’t just a quirk of his storytelling exclusive to The Turn of the Screw. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.


A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She convinces him to marry her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte sure enough it it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next πŸ˜‰ While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, what a cuck!). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James seems to be the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.



I ended up having to look up chapter summaries online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems)… but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on The List because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

 

The Best TED Talks on Books and Reading

If you’re a living human with an internet connection in the 21st century, chances are you’ve fallen down a rabbit-hole of TED talks at least once. They’re available online, for free, at the click of a button, and there are hundred of talks on every imaginable subject. Having an interest in books and literature, as I (clearly) do, my favourite TED talks often focus on reading and the role of books in the modern world. To save you many hours, I’ve put together a list of the best TED talks on books and reading, so you can watch them at your leisure…

Chip Kidd: Designing Books Is No Laughing Matter. OK, It Is.

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Book designer Chip Kidd gives (hilarious!) insights into the thought process behind designing Alfred A Knopf’s most iconic book covers.

Anne Lamott: 12 Truths I Learned From Life And Writing

 

I have watched Anne Lamott’s TED talk on life and writing at least half a dozen times, and quoted it at least a hundred. She gives us gems like: “if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have treated you better!”. Well worth a watch, for writers and non-writers alike.

Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel: What We Learned From 5 Million Books

 

It turns out, the all-knowing all-encompassing Google has digitised 5 million books – that’s over 500 billion words – and these two smarty pants-es have used the data (everything from date of publication to frequency of phrases appearing over time) to give us incredible insights into humanity, culture, and change.

Ann Morgan: My Year Reading A Book From Every Country In The World

 

I related, on a deep, deep level, to this talk from Ann Morgan. She identified a marked lack of diversity on her bookshelves, and set about reading a book from every country in the world. It sounds like a reasonable-enough goal, but she only gave herself a year to do it, and she’s monolingual – meaning she had to go to extreme lengths to find works translated into English. This is a fantastic TED talk that highlights both the importance of diversity and the role of translators in the publishing world.

Parul Sehgal: An Ode to Envy

 

This one might seem out of place, but watch it and you’ll see why I’ve included it here. Not only does Parul Sehgal delve into the nature of jealousy, but she examines it through the lens of literature… and, come to that, she examines literature through the lens of jealousy. Plus, there’s some awesome for-dummies Proust analysis thrown into the bargain.

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger Of A Single Story

 

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk is probably more focused on storytelling and representation than books and reading per se, but she’s a novelist, so I say it counts! She makes (what should be) a very obvious point about the great danger of “single stories”, and the importance of representation and balance in storytelling and narrative. This is one to make you think about how much you don’t know about what you don’t know.

Brian Dettmer: Old Books Reborn As Intricate Art

 

You might have seen a viral video floating around, about old books made into works of art – this is that guy! Brian Dettmer takes physical books (most often old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and out-of-date medical texts) and carves away at them to create sculptures. He calls it “remixing books”. I still can’t quite wrap my head around how he does it, but the end result is phenomenal either way!

Mac Barnett: Why A Good Book Is A Secret Door

 

And, to end on a light (but touching!) note, as all good TED talks do, this one comes from children’s author Mac Barnett. He talks about the incredible capacity of children to accept things as simultaneously real and make-believe (in a way that is far more articulate and easy-to-understand than I can replicate). Plus, he’s got a few cute anecdotes about his readers, and no one can resist those, right?

Honourable mention to the amazing TED talk that I once saw about the importance of reading aloud to children and the impact that this can have on future literacy… that I can’t find anywhere on the TED website! Argh! If you come across it, please link me to it in the comments below!

Bonus question: do you have a favourite bookish TED talk? Share it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


 

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on The List). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.



The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!


It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

– One of James’s more readable passages, drawn from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

  1. The governess was crazy;
  2. The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or
  3. Trying to work it out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… stay tuned for the review next week!


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

 

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful

If you can’t handle rejection, then writing is definitely not your game. It takes a certain kind of resilience to persist with your work when everyone you send it to rejects it outright. This week, I reviewed The Martian; Andy Weir was rejected by so many literary agents that he took his destiny into his own hands and self-published his book, making it available (for free!) through his website. Now, just a few years later, he’s a best-selling author, with a film adaptation starring Matt Damon that has taken over $600 million at the box office. This is the type of “overnight success” story that was years in the making, and gives hope to struggling writers everywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the other brave souls that persisted with their rejected books and went on to be ridiculously successful.

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Carrie – Stephen King

Stephen King – now a household name – received thirty rejections from publishers for his first offering, Carrie. One rejection letter read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King was so disheartened, he reportedly threw the manuscript in the bin… but his wife, the story goes, fished it back out and harangued him into giving it another go. Shortly after, King received a telegram that read: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

King went on to sell the paperback rights for $40,000, and Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year… and thus launched one of the most successful literary careers of our time. It just goes to show!

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova sent out the manuscript for Still Alice about 100 times, by her own calculation, and often she didn’t even receive the validation of an actual rejection – many literary agents just didn’t reply to her at all. Fed up, she self-published, and eventually attracted the attention of Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Still Alice hit the New York Times best-seller list, and stayed there for forty weeks. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her starring role in the film adaptation. Genova is laughing all the way to the bank! (Read my full review of Still Alice here!)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

We don’t know exactly how many times The Great Gatsby was rejected by publishers, but we do know that one called it “an absurd story”, and another (bafflingly) suggested that he’d “have a decent book if [he’d] get rid of that Gatsby character”. When publishers are saying that your titular character needs to get in the bin, you’d be forgiven for thinking a career change might be in order!

Still, Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to give up. Today, The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies, been translated into 42 languages, and adapted to six successful films… not to mention being the subject of countless high-school book reports! (Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here!)

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle has spoken publicly about the rejections (26, count ’em!) that she received for A Wrinkle In Time. Apparently, publishers thought that the children’s book dealt “too overtly” with the problem of evil, and that it would be “too difficult” for the juvenile target market. She was 40 years old by the time a publisher finally gave her a shot. A Wrinkle In Time ended up winning the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, as well as selling over eight million copies. It was adapted for television in 2001, and in film earlier this year.



Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

Speaking of children’s books, J.K. Rowling has to have the best told-you-so rejection story of all time! Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually found a literary agent relatively quickly – and it was a ray of hope for Rowling, who had written the story sitting in Edinburgh cafes while she and her daughter lived on public benefits. But despite the agent’s best efforts, the first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times back-to-back. A last-ditch effort saw them send it to an editor at Bloomsbury – and he might never have taken it on if his eight-year-old daughter hadn’t found the first chapters in his office, and nagged him for a copy of the book so that she could read it all. The rest, as they say…

… actually, that’s not all! Despite his daughter’s enthusiasm, the Bloomsbury editor recommended that Rowling “get a day job”, because the sales of Harry Potter were unlikely to pay the bills. She received an advance of just Β£1,500. That was in 1996; now, 22 years later, the books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide, broken records for fastest-selling books in history, and the film adaptations have grossed over seven billion dollars. Rowling’s “day job” is now roasting trolls on Twitter.

That’s not to say her journey with rejection was over. She penned The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel for adults, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and found herself once again on the receiving end of a bunch of rejection letters. Most editors seemed to think it was “good”, but the market too saturated to take a risk on an “unknown”. When it did get picked up, The Cuckoo’s Calling only sold about 500 copies domestically… until the true identity of the author was revealed, propelling it to the top of the amazon.co.uk best-seller list overnight. Rowling gets the last laugh, once again!

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A popular myth suggests that Joseph Heller decided to name his satirical WWII novel after the twenty-two rejections he received from publishers. That’s not quite true, but it’s accurate in one respect – Heller did, indeed, cop twenty-two rejection letters, one of which actually said: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Ouch!

Heller remained bitter about Catch-22’s reception for the rest of his life, because the zingers didn’t stop once it was accepted for publication. A review in The New Yorker said that Catch-22 “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. What remains is a debris of sour jokes.” Never mind that it went on to sell over ten million copies… I guess you can’t please everyone! (Read my full review of Catch-22 here!)

The Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

William Golding copped a respectable twenty rejections for The Lord Of The Flies. One called it “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” I’m sure there’s plenty of high-school students, forced to read it for English classes, that would agree, but that’s beside the point: the book has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide, it has been adapted into four different films, and it is frequently features on lists of the best books ever written.


Dubliners – James Joyce

Now, I can’t say I blame publishers for taking their time to warm up to James Joyce’s writing. He is, after all, notoriously difficult to read… but it would seem that they more often took issue with his “obscenity” than with his obfuscating prose. He received twenty-two rejections for Dubliners over the course of nine years, but he stuck to his guns. He wrote to one editor (in response to charges of obscenity): “I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties, and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art.” (Oh, yeah, he was also super humble.)

When a publisher did eventually take the bait, his troubles weren’t over. They told him that he wouldn’t receive any royalties for his work unless it sold more than 500 copies. It sold 379 in the first year – Joyce having failed to game the system, even though he bought 120 copies himself. In the vein of that old unappreciated-in-his-time cliche, Joyce is now one of the most influential and regarded writers of the 20th century.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

It’s equally unsurprising that Nabokov had a hard time finding a publisher for Lolita; after all, it’s a dark and disturbing story of obsessive love, kidnapping, and sexual abuse. One editor said of the manuscript: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (Emphasis mine – I added it because damn, that’s cold!)

Lolita was passed over at least five times by major publishers, forcing Nabokov and his agents to look outside the U.S. for publishing partners. Eventually, it was published (in 1955, not even a decade into that thousand years the editor demanded), and went on to sell over 55 million copies. It turns out when revolting stories are beautifully written, the public can forgive a little nausea. πŸ˜‰

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

I’ve saved the best for last: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance literally holds the record (the Guinness Book of World Records record, to be precise) for the most-often rejected best-seller: knocked back 121 times. Can you imagine the kind of determination it takes to persist through that storm of rejection?

The editor that eventually accepted the story was quite melodramatic about it all: “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for,” he said, and “the book is brilliant beyond belief… it is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.” So, it would seem that wading through that sea of rejections was worth it! I’m sure Pirsig is eternally grateful to have finally found an editor that believes in his work that way.

 

Imagine what kind of world we’d have without Harry Potter, or Lolita, or any of the other book on this list, if those publishers had had their way! Do you have a favourite author rejection story? Tell it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Martian – Andy Weir

According to the blurb on the front cover of The Martian, the Financial Times called it “Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe”. Indeed, like Gravity, the most compelling thing about The Martian is its premise: an astronaut becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to find a way to make 30 days’ worth of supplies last for years, 220 million miles away from Earth with no way to communicate. Our brains just aren’t wired to compute that kind of aloneness, so if you decide to read The Martian, be prepared for a bit of a mind-fuck.

Andy Weir began writing The Martian in 2009. He spent years researching (astronomy, space flight, orbital mechanics, botany) to make sure the book was as technically accurate as possible, based on today’s technology. Having been turned down by multiple literary agents in the past, Weir decided to go ahead and self-publish The Martian serially – one chapter at a time – on his own website. Within a few months, he had hundreds of fans requesting an eBook with the whole story, so he cobbled one together and put the first edition online for sale at Amazon’s lowest possible price point – 99 cents.

The Martian eBook quickly sold over 35,000 copies (more than had ever been downloaded for free), which was enough to send it straight to the top of Amazon’s science fiction best-seller list. Of course, this caught the attention of the major publishers. Weir eventually sold off the rights piece by piece (first audiobook, then U.S. rights, then international rights). All told, he made upwards of six figures, and The Martian had a second debut – in the twelfth spot on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover fiction. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2015, a film adaptation starring Matt Damon was released, and it took over $630 million at the box office. Weir is one of those “overnight success” stories that was years in the making…

So, back to the story: American astronaut, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars. His crew had to take the drastic step of an emergency evacuation, six days into their month-long mission, due to a dust storm. Watney got blown off course en route to the shuttle, and – believing him to be dead – they left him behind. Whoops!


Once everyone at NASA back on Earth figures out he’s alive, shit really hits the fan. But never fear: Watney is a (remarkably unflappable) botanist and engineer. He figures out a way to grow crops, and he retrieves a communications device from a previous unmanned mission.

The opening chapters are a bit of an info-dump, but that’s hardly surprising given the subject matter. I’m not 100% sure I understood all of the technical specs that Weir threw at me, but I liked Watney’s “voice” as narrator. Even though it was written in the style of a mission log, it was really conversational. Then the point of view changed – to give the story of what was going on back on Earth – and it sounded not entirely unlike a Dan Brown novel.

There’s certainly a lot of interesting Mars facts in The Martian (well… duh). I learned that you can’t make or use a compass on Mars, for instance, because the red planet has no magnetic field. Still, far and away the most important thing I learned is that I am neither smart enough nor tough enough to survive on Mars. Seriously! If Elon Musk gets his way and we start colonising Mars in the next year or whatever, just go on without me. I’ll only slow you all down.

The rest of the story unfolds in a series of (fairly predictable) mishaps and misadventures. After several chapters of Watney explaining (in great detail) how important “the Hab” (an artificial habitat tent thing) is for his survival, of course it blows up. His potato crops die, and it looks for a minute like there’s a real risk that he’ll starve to death before anyone can pick him up. Other disasters include Watney accidentally destroying his communications equipment (he resorts to sending one-way messages to Earth by arranging Mars rocks into Morse Code), and NASA launching a re-supply rocket that explodes in the air. Despite the dire circumstances, there’s only one moment where Watney really panics, as far as I can recall – he has nerves of steel and unfailing optimism, which is jarringly unrealistic but also kind of vital to the plot (I mean, there’s not much of a story in an astronaut rocking in the foetal position on Mars until he dies, right?).




In the end, the crew that left Watney behind are able to return and retrieve him (with just a few other disasters slowing them down). In his final log entry, Watney starts waxing lyrical about the human instinct to help others, and his utter joy at being rescued. I was kind of disappointed that the story ended where it did; to me, the really interesting part would have been Watney’s return to Earth, re-settling after a year of the most extreme kind of solitude (perhaps there’s a sequel in that?).

I’m sure Weir wouldn’t want me to describe The Martian as a comedy, but I must say I found it really bloody funny. It was a little scary at times, sure, and very interesting, but most of the time I found it just plain funny. Watney was a fantastic narrator, and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. He’s so likeable that Australian scientists have actually – like, in real life – named a new species of bush tomato after him (Solanum Watneyi). I’m not even kidding.

I really enjoyed The Martian, but I stop just short of listing it as a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a fun read, but it’s not life changing, and I’m not all that inclined to run out and purchase copies of everything else Weir ever wrote. Pick up The Martian if you’ve read too many classics lately, and you need a quick read with a few chuckles and a feel-good ending.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Martian:

  • “The highly technical explanations turned my stomach. I like science fiction books, but not this. The Supreme Court would not allow it to be read to death row inmates. The little story there was could not keep me reading.” – Howard J. Fox
  • “Much Mars.
    Such science.
    Wow.” – Jordan Mendez
  • “Mechanical engineering porn. Good stuff.” – Casey
  • “i hate the book because it says the F word in it and I do not like survival books also why I do not like the book is because I do not like space books.” – Lost in the jungle

 

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

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

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

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

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

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


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

Ulysses – James Joyce

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

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of the Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –Β  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class.




The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

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

– J.K. Rowling

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


1984 – George Orwell

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

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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



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

 

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews with great authors, and you’d be surprised how many of them say they read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as children. So, this week, I figured, if it’s good enough for them…

In the late 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle was a young doctor, struggling to make ends meet in his Southsea practice. He turned to writing short stories and articles as a way to supplement his income. I literally laughed out loud when I read that in his author bio – he must be the only doctor in the history of the world that upped his hustle with writing as a side gig! The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of short stories, was published serially in The Strand Magazine between July 1891 and June 1892. The stories were so well received that The Strand saw a considerable boost in subscription numbers, and Doyle grabbed the bull by the horns and demanded more money (because none of his other books or stories were making enough to keep him afloat).

The character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by one of Doyle’s lecturers at Edinburgh University – a bloke called Joseph Bell, who had an eerie talent for spotting details. Still, Doyle owes a true artistic debt to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe was the one who actually invented the classic detective story formula (the prototype being his beloved character C. Auguste Dupin): a super-smart detective with a knack for deduction and leaps of logic, a less-smart (but perhaps more personable) sidekick who narrates the action, and bumbling local officials who never quite get it right. Poe invented all of that, and yet it’s Doyle’s Sherlock that has become synonymous with the fictional detective archetype. Life really isn’t fair…


To make matters worse, Doyle wasn’t actually all that interested in writing his most famous character. His true passion lay with historical fashion, and he lamented that Sherlock Holmes took him away from better things. He idn’t mind the money that came with publishing commercial fiction, of course, and he ultimately published more than sixty Holmes novels and stories to keep that rolling in… but he was really bitter about the fact that there was no demand for any of his other works. He tried to kill Holmes off in 1893 (a short story called “The Final Problem”), but the public outrage was so great that Doyle was forced to bring him back to life with additional stories from earlier in the timeline. To this day, Doyle’s “serious” writing languishes largely unread, while Sherlock Holmes remains one of the most recognisable fictional characters in the world.

Like Frankenstein, or Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters that defined a genre. Even if you’ve never read an Arthur Conan Doyle story in your life, you probably still know who Sherlock is (and you might have even used the phrase “no shit, Sherlock” a time or two). His influence is so widespread that the character of Sherlock Holmes has been played by no fewer than 70 different actors, across 200 film adaptations – and there are hundreds of TV series, stage productions, audio recordings, and other adaptations beyond that. Some of them also bear the title The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but they don’t necessarily follow any of the stories from this collection.

Yes, back to the collection: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes consists of twelve short stories. They’re quick, easy, fun to read, and – most of all – bloody clever! They’re narrated by Dr Watson, recounting the cases taken on by Sherlock Holmes – everything from a mysterious newspaper advertisement (“The Red-Headed League”) to the Ku Klux Klan (“The Five Orange Pips”).

Despite being detective fiction, it’s not all doom and gloom! Most of the cases are actually quite whimsical and fun. Plus, I think that Sherlock has been misrepresented in a lot of modern-day adaptations – in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, he certainly didn’t seem as mean or as brisk as I was expecting. On the whole, this collection is much closer to Scooby Doo than it is to Criminal Minds.




Doyle’s economy of language is dead-set fucking legendary, and I loved how Holmes cut across class divides (which, we must remember, were particularly prominent in Victorian England, where the stories are set). Everyone, from poor street beggars and opium users through to noblemen and royalty, comes to Holmes, hat in hand, asking for help. He’s all about justice in an unjust world, and he has little regard for aristocracy and power. Indeed, he takes particular glee in mocking the power structures of the day, and unveiling the incompetence and prejudice of the authorities. Fuck yeah, Sherlock! Fight the power!

Doyle once said that “The Adventures of the Speckled Band” from this collection was his favourite Sherlock Holmes story. I, personally, couldn’t narrow it down to just one – I loved “A Scandal in Bohemia” (featuring the enigmatic Irene Adler), “The Red-Headed League”, and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”. Ultimately, though, they’re all highly readable, endlessly entertaining, and definitely leave you wanting more. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a highly Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins πŸ˜‰

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

  • “Good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good good awesome cool swag fun to read” – S. Rolman
  • “very heavy book. The case is made of heavy cardboard and the set looks very expensive.” – Debbie Perdue
  • “Great book for unexpected twists, unless you are a detective.” – Tom Bentley
  • “The author terribly misrepresents The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed the Mormon Church).” – DLemon
  • “I ordered this to read on my Kindle but decided that I do not like to read on the Kindle.” – Mary Clark

 

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