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Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

As we finally enter the downhill run for 2020, it seemed fitting to pick up Great Expectations. After all, we all had such great expectations for this year, didn’t we? Nothing went to plan, for us or for one of Dickens’ most-beloved protagonists, Pip. I really loved David Copperfield, so I figured I was all set for another five-star read from the master of English literature. Unfortunately, 2020 struck again…

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Great Expectations was Dickens’ thirteenth novel, but only the second (after the aforementioned David Copperfield) to be fully narrated in the first-person. He must’ve known he was on to something, because this one, too, traces the psychological and moral development of a young man, his transition from country to city life, and an eventual homecoming. But beyond that, they actually have very little in common; apparently, Dickens re-read David Copperfield before starting Great Expectations, to make sure he didn’t accidentally repeat himself.

Dickens structured Great Expectations as three “stages” (volumes), but it was initially published as a serial (as most stories were back then) in Dickens’ own weekly magazine, All The Year Round. Installments appeared from December 1860 to August 1861, and Great Expectations was published in full in a three-volume set later that year. Fun fact: Dickens only put pen to paper and started publishing because the previous serial – A Day’s Ride by Charles Lever – was tanking and circulation numbers were way down. Just goes to show, if you want something done right…

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1812, with our boy Pip an orphan at 7 years old. While visiting the grave of his parents, he encounters an escaped prisoner who bullies him into stealing food and tools from home. For Pip, “home” is a (very) modest dwelling shared with his hot-tempered much-older sister and her amiable husband, the town blacksmith Joe Gargery. They took Pip in after his parents died, and no one ever lets him forget how lucky he is that they did so. (Why does every adult in a Dickens novel get off on psychologically torturing children? Seriously!)

So, Pip pinches some food and a file for the prisoner (so he can gather his strength and cut off his shackles). The poor kid is freaking out that he’s going to get busted, all through Christmas dinner. There’s a knock on the door, and it’s a unit of soldiers asking Joe the Blacksmith to mend some shackles so that they might re-capture two escaped prisoners. Once the prisoners are re-captured and shackled, one of them falsely confesses to having stolen the food and the file himself, clearing Pip of any suspicion.

Sorry for the absurd level of detail here, but it’s all important later, I promise – a clarification that applies to this review and to Great Expectations itself in equal measure. That said, even though Dickens has a reputation for long-windedness and bloated sentences, he can be extremely evocative and succinct when he wants to be. Plus, the wry humour I loved in David Copperfield definitely carries over…

“My sister having so much to do was going to Church vicariously, that is to say, Joe and I were going.”

Great Expectations (Page 23) – Lol!

A few years after the convict incident, Pip is summoned by local pain-in-the-arse Mr Pumblechook to go and visit Miss Havisham. She’s a wealthy and notoriously reclusive spinster, so she needs a young gun around the place to liven her up a bit. Upon arriving at her decrepit mansion, Pip promptly falls in love with Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella. Now, this bitch is cold as ice, the Queen of Treat-‘Em-Mean-Keep-‘Em-Keen. The rest of Great Expectations could almost be summed up as “Pip remains butt-hurt that Estella was mean to him for the rest of his life, while desperately trying to win her approval,”.

The visits to Miss Havisham continue until Pip is old enough to begin his apprenticeship under Joe (which Miss Havisham pays for). Joe’s assistant, Orlick, is jealous as hell about the up-start brother-in-law getting the plum gig. Instead of wallowing in his misery, like a normal person, he bonks Mrs Joe over the head with something heavy. She doesn’t die, but she does suffer severe brain damage, and Orlick figures justice has been served.

Four years into Pip’s apprenticeship, he receives a visit from a lawyer, Mr Jaggers, with the most intriguing offer. Apparently, an anonymous patron has set aside a large sum of money to finance Pip’s dream of Becoming A Gentleman. Obviously, Pip assumes it’s Miss Havisham, his previous financier, but Mr Jaggers refuses to confirm or deny. Off Pip goes to London, to learn how to Act Proper…

Thus begins the second stage of Great Expectations. Pip sets himself up with a tutor, and finds a best friend in the tutor’s son, Herbert (who bizarrely calls Pip ‘Handel’ throughout the novel – it was annoying and confusing as heck for a while). The swankier Pip gets, the more embarrassed he becomes about his upbringing, and he starts to look down his nose at Joe and the family who raised him.

Word comes from home that Orlick (of head-bonking fame) has come into the employ of Miss Havisham – uh oh! – but Pip, being a dick-swinging gent now, has a quiet word in Mr Jaggers’ ear and sees to it that Orlick gets the sack. Now, here’s the weird part: you’d think that this would be a huge CLANG moment with reverberations, given that this is a book about moral development and all, but Dickens kinda glosses over it. Instead, he skips straight ahead to the next Big Twist: that Pip’s sister finally succumbs to her injuries and topples off the mortal coil. Joe is, understandably, quite bummed.

Pip’s still getting five hundred quid a year from his anonymous benefactor, which is more than he knows what to do with, so he decides to do a little anonymous benefact-ing of his own. He sets his mate Herbert up in a plum job that will last him the rest of his life. He figures this good deed will get the karma train running back his way, but alas, Estella still won’t have a bar of him. She decides she’s going to marry some other dickhead instead; Pip tries to talk her out of it, and she (quite rightly) tells him to get fucked and mind his own business.

So, we’re about halfway through Great Expecations at this point (it feels longer than 2020, doesn’t it?), and FINALLY Pip’s benefactor is unmasked! Obviously, it’s not Miss Havisham. It’s actually the convict he encountered that first night in the cemetery (see? told you it was important later!). Mr Abel Magwitch was transported to Australia after he was re-captured, but he never forgot the kindness of the little boy who got him a feed and helped him in his bid for freedom. Magwitch worked hard, yanked on some bootstraps, and eventually got enough money together to make Pip a gentleman. Unfortunately, he violated the terms of his sentence to return to England to see that it was done, so now he’s put everyone in a real fucking pickle. Nice going, Magwitch.

Third stage: Pip needs to figure out how to get Magwitch out of the country, pronto, and he enlists Herbert’s help to get it done. Now, I must say, the plot of Great Expectations really starts to fall apart at this point. It’s a lot of Pip running back and forth between Mr Jaggers and Miss Havisham, getting money and figuring out who Estella’s birth parents are (??? who cared until now? honestly?).

Dickens officially loses me when Miss Havisham spontaneously combusts – no, I’m not kidding! Pip gets badly burned trying to put out the flames. It’s painful and all, but he cops on with it, and he and Herbert are just about ready to smuggle Magwitch out of the country… when Pip is foolishly lured to the remote(!) marshes(!!) at night(!!!) and Head-Bonker-In-Chief Orlick tries to murder him.

I’m just going to rush through the rest of it, because really, if you’re not Done(TM) with Great Expectations by now, you need to work on your priorities. Herbert saves the day, and Pip is rescued from certain death. They almost manage to get Magwitch out of England, but they get busted at the last minute and it all goes to hell. Magwitch dies in prison. Pip gets real crook and Joe has to nurse him back to health. Joe also ends up paying all of Pip’s debts (no idea where he got the dough, but I was so bored and confused by this point I didn’t really give it much thought). Joe marries the nurse who cared for his first wife (good for him). Pip moves with Herbert and his wife to Egypt (cool, cool). He comes back after eleven years, and has his final encounter with Estella.

She falls into his arms, and they finally live happily ever after, right? WRONG. After all that, there is absolutely no pay-off. Great Expectations ends with the famously ambiguous line that Pip saw “no shadow of another parting from her” after that. The end.

So, yes, Great Expectations was a bit of a let-down. My fault, really, for reading it during this stinking-bad-very-no-good year.

Clearly, Great Expectations didn’t draw me in the way that David Copperfield did. I’m still struggling to figure out why, exactly. I remember David Copperfield being brilliantly paced, and it kept me hooked, all the way through to a satisfying resolution. Great Expectations started off okay, with poor orphan Pip and his crisis of conscience, but after that it just kind of tanked.

I think maybe this book’s downfall is that, though Dickens tried to write an interesting plot and character (as he did so successfully with David Copperfield), he was too preoccupied this time around with inserting his Ideas into the story. He ended up with 600+ pages about the (contradictory) concepts of morality and status, being a good person and being a gentleman, etc. Those ideas all made their way into David Copperfield of course – as they do many other Edwardian and Victorian books – but that was a book about characters with problems, not problems personified in characters. Great Expectations is an interesting philosophical and class commentary – about the origins of wealth, personal values versus social ladder climbing, and so on – but that alone doesn’t make for a good read.

The one real upside to reading Great Expectations (aside from the fact that now I can say I have and I never have to do it again) is that I can officially say the rumour that Dickens “couldn’t write women” is absolute bullshit. By far, the most interesting characters in Great Expectations were Mrs Joe (who was basically the original Petunia Dursley), Miss Havisham (the bitter old broad who hates all men, very relatable) and Estella (who has no time for being “nice” to boring boys unworthy of her). Apparently, Estella was based on Dickens’ real-life mistress, Ellen Ternan – I hope she gave him hell.

So, that’s it. I found Great Expectations a real slog, and struggled to get through to the end – which makes it the perfect metaphor for this slog of a year. I loved David Copperfield enough that I’m not dissuaded from ever trying Dickens again, but Great Expectations and I are done. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a first-timer! Here’s hoping my next Dickens – and the next year! – is a return to form.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Great Expectations:

  • “I know this is true Dickens style, but the detail wasted on nothing for pages and pages was just too much. Pip is a twit.” – Victoria Reader
  • “I had low expectations… they were met.” – Jon M. Wilson
  • “I guess the author had lower expectations than the audience did” – t
  • “i would recomend this book to friends who have insomnia or those who i absolutely despise.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I was forced to read this book in my English class this year, and I almost died. For a more thrilling read, try a dictionary or a phone book.” – Brandon Rohrig
  • “Reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS as a 14 year old high school student in 1967 helped me acquire a clearer understanding of the concept of infinity. Eternity could never be as long as this book, which I endured to its soporific, boring end. I recommend it to hold up the end of a busted sofa!” – Author in the Attic
  • “Amazon. Sort your reviews section out on this. Reviews in this section seem to be for everything from a book to a mug to a tea towel to an audiobook to Anne of Green Bloody Gables. Atrocious.” – Def Jef

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended read on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather. Granddad idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. My gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from my grandparents’ collection. I’m sure Granddad would have been damn happy that I finally got around to reading it, and eager to discuss it with me.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel. The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism: it was written by J.B. Priestly who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest. And he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. Priestly didn’t like that, but I thought it’s precisely this “chuck-in-a-bit-of-everything” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book.

The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch and Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it).

Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away and find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they tried to stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s extremely basic, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon after, too. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never lose track of who they are or what they’re about.

In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. Isn’t that fucking great?!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

Note: I loved David Copperfield SO MUCH that I included it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes

7 Dickensian Novels

Charles Dickens was the Grand Poobah of English literature, but what exactly are “Dickensian novels”? According to Francine Prose at The New York Review of Books, they are books with “a large cast of vividly drawn characters, some of them grotesques with comically descriptive names and odd tics of speech and behavior; a plucky orphan who overcomes a childhood blighted by humiliating poverty or simple lower-class misery; numerous and ingeniously interconnected subplots; panoramic shifts of location; [and] a narrative that makes the reader finish each chapter eager to begin the next”. As best I can tell, Dickensian novels should also have a fairly explicit social commentary; Dickens was no great fan of what the Industrial Revolution was doing to the common people, and he made that much very clear in just about everything he wrote. So, here’s a list of seven contemporary Dickensian novels that can bring all of this – and more – to your book shelf.

7 Dickensian Novels - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can probably tell that Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is a Dickensian novel before you even flip open the cover. The length is the very first thing you notice about it – most editions run over 1,000 pages! And Dickens was nothing if not wordy… If you’re not too intimidated to tackle it, you’ll find the story is a bit more magical and fantastical than anything Dickens wrote, but the setting and the era definitely match up. Set in early 19th century London, it follows two magicians, one grumpy sod who likes to do things by-the-book, and one young renegade who likes to play it by ear. Read my full review of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell here.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead - Barbara Kingsolver - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, maybe it’s cheating to include Demon Copperhead in a list of Dickensian novels, because it is a very deliberate and explicit adaptation of one of Dickens’ books, David Copperfield – but I love it so much, I’ll never pass up a chance to recommend it. Barbara Kingsolver moves Dickens’ classic faux-autobiography to contemporary Appalachia, but it still follows an orphaned child who grows up in dire circumstances. She weaves in all of the agony and ecstasy of the original tale, while converting the social commentary to the current opioid crisis in the United States. Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History Of Seven Killings - Marlon James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Vividly drawn characters? Check! Numerous and ingeniously interconnected subplots? Check! Panoramic shifts in location? Check! We’ve got all the ingredients for Dickensian novels here in A Brief History Of Seven Killings. This exhilarating novel centers the (real!) assassination attempt on the life of iconic Jamaican musician, Bob Marley. The violence came at the culmination of a period of massive social and political upheaval in Jamaica, just two days before the general election of 1976. Marlon James traces these events, and their ripple effects, across decades and continents.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dickens was no stranger to creating characters based closely on real people, so True History Of The Kelly Gang is a Dickensian novel on that front. Peter Carey delved into the world of Australian historical figure Ned Kelly, a bush-ranger renowned for his violent crimes (and violent end). While Ned Kelly’s fans like to paint him as a Robin Hood-type, stealing from the rich to advance the poor, Carey draws a somewhat more accurate portrait, one of a complicated man who lived outside of the law in a burgeoning colony. Fun fact: Ned Kelly’s and Charles Dickens’ lifetimes overlapped, so the time period of the book is of itself Dickensian. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even though it doesn’t have the brute heft of some of the other Dickensian novels on this list, Colson Whitehead has the plucky orphan and the social commentary down pat in The Nickel Boys. Even though the setting and time period are very different, the atrocities in Whitehead’s and Dickens’ worlds are alarmingly similar. Elwood Curtis finds himself shipped off to a disciplinary school, where he’s subject to abuses beyond most people’s imagining. Dickens definitely would have appreciated Whitehead’s interrogation of power abuses, and the determination of spirit in the main character. Read my full review of The Nickel Boys here.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

The Eighth Life - Nino Haratschvili - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Eighth Life might be more closely related to the sweeping multi-generational magical realism epics of writers like Gabriel García Márquez, but there are definitely Dickensian elements mixed in as well. Of course, I can only speak to the English translation (brought to us by the brilliant bilingual duo, Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin), but I’d imagine the same is true of the original German. Haratischvili nails the Dickensian elements of vividly drawn characters, emotional narrative arcs, sharp social commentary, and compelling storytelling. Plus, it’s a brick of a book, running some 950 pages. Read my full review of The Eighth Life here.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black - Esi Edugyan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A charismatic child living a life of oppression and violence, a subtle critique of technological and social upheaval, moments of celebration and devastation in equal measure, and a life journey stretching across continents? Is it a Dickens novel, or Washington Black? It’s both! Esi Edugyan’s take on the Dickensian tradition places the story initially on a Barbados sugar plantation, where an eleven-year-old slave is chosen to be the manservant of an eccentric inventor (and, incidentally, abolitionist). The two of them are drawn together across impossible divides, in this startling and moving story.

30+ Books With Numerical Titles

One of my local book stores runs a book club based on theme. Rather than assigning a specific book, they suggest a theme and members gather to discuss which book they chose on that theme, and what they thought of it. It’s the perfect set-up for mood readers, or people who are pretty particular in what they like to read. One of their recent themes caught my eye: books with numerical titles. Glancing over my own shelves, I noticed just how many of my books would’ve fit (if I’d gotten my shit together and actually participated). So, just in case you ever find yourself needing books with numerical titles for your own book club (or any other reason), here’s a list!

30+ Books With Numerical Titles - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Naturally, for a list of books with numerical titles, I’ve put them in numerical order. If any of these titles intrigue you, click through to read my full review – and consider purchasing it using an affiliate link to support this page 🙂

The One And Only Dolly Jamieson by Lisa Ireland

One Day by David Nicholls

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

One Of Those Mothers by Megan Nicol Reed

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Allegra In Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (or The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, depending on where you’re reading)

The Seven Year Slip by Ashley Poston

7 1/2 by Christos Tsiolkas

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

When I Was Ten by Fiona Cummins

The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

12 Steps To A Long And Fulfilling Death by Sarah Smith

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Th1rt3en by Steve Cavanagh

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

The One Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

100 Nasty Women Of History by Hannah Jewell

138 Dates by Rebekah Campbell

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

15 Books About Addiction

The science on addiction is always evolving. We now know more than ever about what causes some people to be more susceptible to addiction, the psycho-social circumstances that give rise to addiction developing, and the physical and chemical differences in the bodies and brains of people who experience addiction. And yet, it feels like there’s still so much we don’t know. Literature is another way to understand addiction, to understand its impact on people and communities. Here are fifteen books about addiction that offer a variety of perspectives.

15 Books About Addiction - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You know what’s a fun, safe addiction? Buying things through the affiliate links on this page! I’ll get a small commission for referring you.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

Dry - Augusten Burroughs - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Augusten Burroughs has lived a lot of life – from his strange and traumatic childhood to his coming out as a “witch” in adulthood – all of which he has detailed in his memoirs and essay collections. One of the most poignant and moving accounts, punctuated with his unique brand of humour, is Dry. This memoir covers his ten-year battle with alcohol addiction and treatment (though he does note, in the introduction, that some events have been condensed and “recreated” for literary purposes – why let the truth get in the way of a good story?). After an intervention by his co-workers, Burroughs entered a treatment facility, and had to learn to navigate the world newly sober.

Daisy Jones And The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones And The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Daisy Jones And The Six is a #BookTok best-seller, a #Bookstagram darling, and responsible for a resurgence in the fashions and music of the ’70s. But readers with a keen eye have picked up its underlying theme about the dangers of addiction, especially in the music industry. Multiple characters in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel experience addiction, with varying levels of success in attaining and maintaining sobriety. While some reviewers have accused Reid of “glamorising” addiction, others have praised its accurate portrayal of both the highs and the lows. Read my full review of Daisy Jones And The Six here.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Girl On The Train is one of those books about addiction that will make you think twice about pouring a glass of wine or mixing a gin and tonic after a hard day. One of the protagonists, Rachel, has had too many hard days to count – and too many drinks to count, too. She often blacks out, with no idea what she’s said or done, or to whom. It’s one of the driving forces in this best-selling thriller, as she tries to piece together her fractured alcohol-soaked memories to figure out what happened to the woman she saw each day from the train window on her commute. Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Wishful Drinking - Carrie Fisher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Carrie Fisher didn’t shy away from her iconic role as the Star Wars heroine Princess Leia – even when it drove her to drink. The cover of Wishful Drinking is a perfect demonstration of her self-deprecating good humour that made her world famous, showing “Leia” face down holding a precariously tipped martini glass, next to a scattered pile of pills. She’s unabashed in her re-telling of her experience of addiction, from marriage breakdown to her time in rehab to the death of a friend. She also provides insight into how her bipolar disorder, diagnosed in her 20s, intertwined with her addiction – even when she appeared, to all the world, to be having a great time.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead - Barbara Kingsolver - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just as Charles Dickens wrote books that changed our understanding of poverty and the working class in the Victorian era, so does Barbara Kingsolver look set to up-end our perspective on addiction in America. Her adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead, shifts the story of the hard-scrabble orphan to contemporary Appalachia. The protagonist battles abuse at the hands of caregivers, housing instability, and barely-there education – largely due to his mother’s persistent addiction(s) – before a series of unfortunate events sees him fall into the clutches of addiction himself. This is set to be one of the most important and captivating books about addiction of the 2020s. Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

Monkey Grip - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference? They can both kill you.” So writes Australian literary icon Helen Garner in her debut novel, Monkey Grip. It’s a modern classic of the Australian canon, depicting life and love in Melbourne’s suburbs in the ’70s. Famously, the events and characters of the novel closely resemble those experienced by Garner herself, so they have a strong ring of authenticity. Unfortunately, that includes her falling in love with a heroin addict, and the to-and-fro of their affair. Javo is addicted to smack, Nora is addicted to loving him – even in the face of overwhelming evidence that she will never be able to compete with the high he’s chasing. Read my full review of Monkey Grip here.

You Talk We Die by Judy Ryan

You Talk We Die - Judy Ryan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Many of these books about addiction focus on those most intimately acquainted with its experience, the addict and their loved ones. You Talk We Die is one of the rare books that zooms out, and looks at the impact of addiction on the community, and the community’s responsibility in dealing with it. Judy Ryan was simply a resident of a “heroin hot spot” in Melbourne, where she would frequently have to assist people who had overdosed in the otherwise-quiet suburban streets. After two separate inquests recommended the introduction of safe injecting rooms to no avail, Ryan took it upon herself to advocate for them. After years of dedicated service to the cause, a safe injecting facility was established in her community, and the positive effect has rippled outward. Read my full review of You Talk We Die here.

Adèle by Leïla Slimani

Adele - Leila Slimani - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not all addictions revolve around alcohol or drugs. Some, like that experienced by the titular character in Leïla Slimani’s novel Adèle, manifest around essential human experiences or functions – namely, in this case, sex. Adèle is a respected journalist who appears, from the outside, to have a perfect life – husband, kid, and a swish apartment in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. It’s all a mirage. Adèle is actually a sex addict, seeking ever-more brutal carnal encounters to satisfy her desperate need. She’s kept her addiction a secret, from her husband and colleagues, but the cracks are beginning to show. The story was translated into English by Sam Taylor. Read my full review of Adèle here.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy - JD Vance - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hillbilly Elegy is one of the more controversial books about addiction. Readers have criticised author J.D. Vance’s generalisations from his own experience growing up in suburban Ohio, and highlighted his glaring omissions of racism, his reinforcement of stereotypes, and exclusion of existing scholarship on poverty in Appalachia. Still, the memoir is popular and pervasive enough that it’s worth considering. While Vance’s remit is broad – examining the decline of the white middle class in America, with his own family as a case study – the story is clearly deeply personal, and the legacy of addiction and cycles of abuse essential in understanding Vance’s viewpoint.

Misery by Stephen King

Misery - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephen King has been remarkably open about his struggles with addiction, in reality and in his fiction. That’s what makes Misery one of the most truthful books about addiction, despite its fictional characters and setting. King uses the tropes of horror fiction – a vicious captor, a helpless victim, a remote location, cruelty and torture – to represent the “trap” that addicts find themselves in. Worst of all, the protagonist’s predicament is a hell of his own making, being that he ends up trapped immobile in the home of a sadistic nurse as a result of his own drinking (and drunk driving). Just in case the metaphor isn’t clear enough, the victim is also a writer of best-sellers. Read my full review of Misery here.

Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron

Good Morning Destroyer Of Men's Souls - Nina Renata Aron - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nina Renata Aron begins Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by pointing out that many books about addiction are focused wholly and solely on the person who is experiencing addiction. Her role, that of the person who loves an addict, is relegated to the background. She tired of being a supporting player in her own life, which is why she wrote this memoir, an unflinching account of her co-dependency. Not only does she love and share a life with “K”, who is addicted to opiates, but she can connect the dots between their relationship and the addictions of her sister and her mother’s boyfriend. She generously shares her own experience, and also the broader context of the gendered labour in supporting someone who is experiencing addiction. Read my full review of Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls here.

In My Skin by Kate Holden

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

There’s a lot of cross-over in the stereotypes about women who experience addiction and women who are sex workers. Kate Holden examines them all, sifting the grains of truth from the societal myths, in In My Skin. This is her memoir about her own heroin addiction, how she turned to sex work to finance her lifestyle, and how she eventually defeated her demons. Holden draws from the rich literary tradition of confessional women writers to draw a beautiful, aching portrait about how her life ended up so very different to how she imagined. It’s a transformative read, one that will have you questioning your assumptions.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sharp Objects follows a journalist, Camille, as she returns to her stifling hometown to investigate the abduction and murder of two young girls. That’s enough to unsettle anyone, but Camille has traumas in her past that make her ultimately susceptible to anything that might provide an escape. Her addiction manifests in multiple ways: there’s drinking, yes, but she’s also addicted to self-harm. She has carved a dictionary’s worth of words into her own skin, and wears long sleeves and pants to hide the signs of her addiction from the world. This is a twisted thriller of the kind that only Gillian Flynn could produce, and it’s also a hair-raising book about the co-morbidities and root causes of addiction. Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Loneliness and addiction go hand in hand – one feeds the other, in an endless loop. That’s reflected in the life of Eleanor, a lonely former foster child who’s repressing some serious family trauma, but she’s “completely fine”. Gail Honeyman was inspired to write Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine after reading about the epidemic of loneliness among young people, and the coping mechanisms they use to ameliorate it. Eleanor turns to alcohol to numb the pain of her isolation, often losing hours of her solitary life (even entire days) to drunken stupors. The story ends on a hopeful note, with Eleanor confronting the reasons she turns to alcohol and forging a path forward. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

Look, there’s an argument to be made that addiction is the least of Jude’s problems in A Little Life. Hanya Yanagihara has written one of the definitive books about misery, with his trauma seeming endless over the course of the 800-plus pages. But drug abuse and addiction is an essential symptom of what happens to Jude and his friends, a crucial crutch that the reader must understand in order to understand the characters themselves. Beware when you pick this one up, the list of trigger warnings is longer than your arm. Read my full review of A Little Life here.

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