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Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

With six books done in this reading project, I tell you what: I was ready to read some proper smut. I was fed up with Victorian censorship, and grisly murders, and age-appropriate young adult writing. Hell with it all, I wanted some dirty bits! So when I passed by the bargain bin of my favourite second-hand book store and saw a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, marked down to just $5… well, that’s just fate, isn’t it?

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Lady Chatterley’s Lover was originally published in Italy in 1928, but the full text wasn’t available in other parts of the world until much later. In 1960, Penguin was actually prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for trying to publish the unexpurgated version… to no avail. A publisher’s note dedicates the book to the jurors that declared them not guilty. In fact, their victory in that case established a precedent that allowed for a far greater degree of freedom in publishing explicit content. So, three cheers for Penguin! Without them, we might have no smut to read at all… 😉

“Well,” I thought to myself, “if it caused that much of a stir, it must be good! Right?”.

Wrong.

Richard Hoggart gets it right in the first sentence of his introduction to this edition: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not a dirty book.”

I didn’t lose all hope straight away, because he insisted that “dirty minds look for dirt”, so I was sure I’d be able to find some somewhere. After all, the premise is so promising: Lady C is trapped in a sexless marriage (Sir Hubby was been paralysed by a war wound, and we’re all just meant to accept that there’s no way a person with a disability could have sex, okay?), so she goes about finding other ways to keep herself entertained. Lawrence does his part to set the stage, skipping over all of their early lives together so the reader comes straight into (what you would assume is going to be) the action.

In fact, it’s Sir Hubby – fancying himself quite the progressive intellectual – who suggests Lady C find herself a shag or two on the side, and get herself knocked up. He wants a kid around to take care of all the trees he’s planted once he’s dead, which is as good a reason to procreate as any, I suppose? Lady C is keen on the idea, because this marriage is the worst: they’re both dead inside and basically indifferent to one another.

Off she trots, and I rub my hands together in glee: bring on the smut!

Only I get to about a third of the way through Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and it’s all still really hum-drum. Lady C’s life sucks. She mopes a lot about how much her life sucks. She finds a lover and fucks him, twice, but he turns out to be a bit of a dickhead (he has a cry about having to wait around and stay erect while she finishes – damn, masculinity is fragile). So, that doesn’t work out, and then Lady C’s life sucks so much that she basically wants to die. Sir Hubby throws a little bitch fit of his own, because Lady C wants to get a servant. There’s a lot of arguments about capitalism.

Where. Is. The. Filth?

Lady C eventually finds a new lover in the form of the bogan gamekeeper, and that cheers her up for about a minute – but from then on, it’s just a downhill run of symbolism. “Oooh, the aristocrat is having an affair with a commoner, industrialisation is bad, capitalism is bad, the intellectuals have unfair dominion over the working classes!”, etc etc. God, there is so much whining!

The dirty bits were really far too few and far between to hold my attention at all. What’s worse: they weren’t even that dirty, really. The most obscene thing I came across was the gamekeeper dropping a few c-bombs (and I can see how that might have been shocking pre-sexual revolution, but now it’s pretty much par for the course). Other than that, it’s just a load of smack about Lady C being all aquiver and stirrings in her womb. Snore.

There’s a lot of Maury-esque drama, too. Lady C finally gets knocked up, but she runs away to Venice for a while so she can tell Sir Hubby that it was some Fabio over there that planted the seed (she’s worried he’ll fire the gamekeeper if he finds out he’s the one sticking it to his wife). Only, while she’s gone, the bogan gamekeeper’s bogan wife shows up and finds Lady C’s shit all over their bogan gamekeeper house. So, she throws a tanty and starts running her mouth off about what a cheating bastard he is. Word gets back to Sir Hubby, he puts two and two together, and Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper gets fired anyway. Lady C gets to go back to complaining about how much life sucks.

She does her best to salvage the situation – by roping her father and sister into a plot to convince Sir Hubby that the foetus is actually someone else’s, but that spectacularly flops (shocking, I know). She has half an idea to marry Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper instead, but he’s not acting happy enough about the pregnancy. And this is pretty much where the novel ends: Lady C and Bogan Baby Daddy Gamekeeper sitting around at opposite as the opposite ends of the country, waiting for divorces from their respective spouses. The ending is almost as anticlimactic as the sex scenes.

I had such high hopes, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover shat all over them. The only redeeming quality was a few cracking one-liners:

“They were just as good as the men themselves: only better, since they were women.”

“Oh, intellectually, I believe in having a good heart, a chirpy penis, a lively intelligence, and the courage to say ‘shit’ in front of a lady.”

“Sex and a cocktail: they both lasted about as long, had the same effect, and amounted to about the same thing.”

Overall, though, even the occasional lol wasn’t enough to save Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the $5 price now seems not such a bargain. After all, you can find better filth on the internet for free… or so I hear 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

  • “It’s a story of a woman, written by a man. I find it silly, unbelievable, unreal. Lady Chat meets a man who, sneaks up to her room, and they immediately get naked. But then she hates him. Not realistic. The pages are filled with paragraphs describing her walk through the woods, describing the flowers? And describing people who, pages later, have died, so what was the point of blabbing about them? This is written to be a movie. Too many detailed conversations of no importance. I keep waiting to get to the “good part” but, there is no good parts in this silly book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Bought for wife! Read a long time ago! Thought it was racey back in the day and quite erotic! My wife wasn’t impressed!” – John S.
  • “Tedious, boring, pompous, distasteful characters, and crude… I only recommend this if you are having troubles getting to sleep, because this classic garbage works better than a pill.” – Holly

Banned Books Around The World

Earlier this year, five people were arrested in Hong Kong for “conspiring to publish, distribute, exhibit or copy seditious publications”. The publications in question were a series of children’s books about sheep. The Guardians Of Sheep Village sought to explain to children the 2019 democracy protests, The Janitors Of Sheep Village depicted sheep workers going on strike, and The 12 Braves Of Sheep Village saw twelve sheep escape their village’s wolf overloads by boat (in reference to the twelve Hongkongers who sought to escape by speedboat to Taiwan last year). It seems unthinkable that, in the 21st century, there are governments in the world still trying to control and censor what their constituents read… but here we are. Take a look at some of these banned books around the world.

Banned Books Around The World - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Note: I’ve chosen not to delve into the books banned in Nazi Germany, partially because it’s such a long list in and of itself, but mostly because there’s a lot of potential for insensitivity that I wish to avoid. Plus, I didn’t want to give the impression that book banning and book burning are problems specific to one geography and government…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but a lot of governments sure did get their knickers in a knot over it. In 1928, the Chinese translation by Rao Shu-yi was denied publication by China’s Central Bureau, and booksellers weren’t allowed to stock or sell any version of the novel. It was also banned in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, for violation of their respective obscenity laws, until the 1960s. There was quite a famous court case about it, and current editions of the book (like mine) are dedicated to the jurors who acquitted the publishers on charges of obscenity. Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a (you guessed it) brave new world, where everyone’s high and having sex, and babies are made in test tubes. It’s a sort of dystopia in utopian clothing, if you will. In this cautionary tale, the Irish government found “comments against religion and the traditional family”, as well as “strong language” and “sexual promiscuity” – grounds enough to have it banned in 1932. They weren’t alone in their condemnation; Australia also banned Brave New World the same year, and the Indian government called Huxley a “pornographer”. I guess we know which countries to avoid if we want sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll after the apocalypse… Read my full review of Brave New World here.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oooh boy! *cracks knuckles* If there were awards for most banned books around the world, The Satanic Verses would surely be a contender. Salman Rushdie was roundly condemned for his alleged “blasphemous treatment of a character modeled after the Prophet Muhammad and of the transcription of the Qurʾān”. The Iran Ayatollah was so ticked off, he put a hit out on Rushdie (a fatwa), forcing him into hiding for years. He couldn’t leave his safe house (which changed every few months) without protection. The book was banned in (*deep breath*): Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand.

Special mention: Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, was murdered in 1991 as a result of his involvement with The Satanic Verses and the fatwa issued on anyone involved with its publication. Always, always, always #NameTheTranslator – sometimes they die for the work they do. Vale.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s hard to imagine any government finding offense in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. It’s a children’s book, for goodness sake – and largely nonsensical, to boot! I’m sorry to say that doesn’t stop them. In 1900, a school in the United States proposed that the book implied expletives and alluded to masturbation (no, I’m not kidding), and “other sexual fantasies”. I mean, I personally am not turned on by the Cheshire Cat, but go off, I guess. Later, in 1931, the powers that be in Hunan, China, banned Alice and co. because anthropomorphised animals are “insulting”, somehow. General Ho Chien contended that teaching children to regard humans and animals as equals would be “disastrous”. And then finally, back in America in the 1960s, a whole new batch of parents worried that Alice’s adventures would encourage kids to try hallucinogenic drugs. All told, these are some of the most ridiculous reasons I’ve heard for banning books. Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Banning Frankenstein might seem funny on the face of it (or warranted, depending on your view of the macabre), but there’s actually a dark truth behind this one. In 1955, the South African government banned Frankenstein for containing “obscene” or “indecent” material. The thing is, this was shortly after the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and amendments to the Immorality Act, introduced to prevent “Europeans” and “non-Europeans” forming families. Yes, this is some awful apartheid shit. The government saw in Shelley’s science fiction an “indecent” message about the “amalgamation” of people. Just thinking about it makes me shudder… Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Turns out a book about a bloke who wanders around Dublin for a day, drinking and wanking and forgetting to pick up the perfume he bought for his wife, raised some eyebrows. Who could have guessed? Ulysses has been banned by various governments since it first appeared in serial form in 1918-20. An excerpt featuring the aforementioned cheeky wank came to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and (true to their name) they did everything they could to suppress its circulation. The United States Postal Service even burned copies that were sent in the mail. A landmark court case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933, finally caused the ban to be lifted. The United Kingdom also lifted their ban on its distribution shortly after. Australia held firm, though, and suppressed its circulation until the 1950s. Read my full review of Ulysses here.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

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Simone de Beauvoir once said that The Second Sex was her attempt to explain “why a woman’s situation, still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world’s basic problems”. Luckily, she first published it in France, where permissive attitudes and effective absence of obscenity laws meant that anything went in publishing – even broads getting mouthy about their shitty circumstances. Francoist Spain held a different view, though, and banned the book for “advocacy of feminism” (they didn’t even try to cloak it in euphemism, bless them); they didn’t account for the brave feminists who would smuggle in copies of the book and circulate it themselves, until the ban was lifted and an accurate translation permitted for publication.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the very first books to be formally banned in the United States was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1852, upon its publication, the southern Confederate States banned it for its abolitionist philosophy and for “arousing debates on slavery”. (Funnily enough, the States – now “United” – are still having that same argument about, for instance, The Hate U Give, alleging that it arouses abolitionist arguments regarding policing and debates about racial profiling.) Stowe’s novel was also banned in Russia by Nicholas I, because in presenting a view that, y’know, all humans might be equal it “undermined religious ideals” of the country.

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Forget about Lady Chatterley and her lover: Tropic Of Cancer is the go if you want 20th century smut. Unsurprisingly, it was subject to similar bans and censorship. It even caused the pearl-clutchers of France a bit of bother. They initially allowed its publication because it was written in English and intended only for English-speaking readers… but once word got out about its misogyny, racism, antisemitism, and straight-up eroticism, authorities and conservatives pushed for an outright ban. Meanwhile, around the world, it was banned decisively and immediately. The United States objected to its sexually explicit content and vulgarity up until the 1960s, South Africa until the 1980s. Interested readers, of course, got around these restrictions by smuggling the book, leading to a lot of court cases and criminal trials, which in turn only boosted Miller’s popularity as a purveyor of literary porn. Read my full review of Tropic Of Cancer here.

100 Fun Facts About Books and Authors

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

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

Second Place – Rachel Cusk

Second Place - Rachel Cusk - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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If we’re talking hotly anticipated new releases this year, Second Place could just about burn your fingers: the new novel from literary darling Rachel Cusk, author of the acclaimed Outline trilogy.

The story of her latest is a tribute to Mabel Dodge Luhan, the woman who hosted D.H. Lawrence at her home in the 1920s. In Cusk’s version, a woman invites a famed visual artist to stay at her remote coastal home.

The narrator, M, seems to fancy herself an Emma Bovary-type, isolated at home with her “not bourgeois” husband, her grown daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend. She hopes the artist, L, will be her salvation and she’s – naturally – disappointed by the strained relationship that develops between them.

This book can be found at the intersection of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Garner’s autobiographical fiction, but sadly falls far short of them both. There’s nothing fresh or ground-breaking in this testament to privileged second-wave feminism.

Second Place is fine, it’s readable, but it’s also nostalgic to the point of boredom and quite forgettable. Still, I’m grateful to my friends at Faber Books for sending me a copy!

Delta Of Venus – Anaïs Nin

Not to be indelicate, but Anaïs Nin was basically the original cam girl. Delta Of Venus is a collection of fifteen erotic short stories that Nin originally wrote for the “personal use” of a “private collector” back in the 1940s. She was paid a dollar a page, after Henry Miller turned down the assignment at the generous rate of $100 per month; luckily, Nin earned enough to bankroll the smut Miller wrote with his “integrity” intact. The stories weren’t published until 1977, after Nin’s (and the “private collector”s) death.

Delta Of Venus - Anais Nin - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Feel free to scroll down if you want to get straight to the review, but I can’t resist the opportunity to give a bit of biographical detail about this oft-maligned trailblazer before I get started. Nin’s first book, a defense of D.H. Lawrence (yes, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame), was published in the 1930s. It made her a fixture on the literary scene, as did her vivacious personality and her boundless generosity. Still, she didn’t get the attention she deserved from mainstream readers and press until much, much later. Her exploits in literary erotica, as I mentioned, gave her the capacity to fund the work of the middle-aged, impoverished, would-be writer Miller; he went on to be lauded for books like Tropic Of Cancer, while Nin remained relatively unknown. She also funded the dreams of countless other down-on-their-luck male writers the same way. She made their careers possible, but effectively none of them saw fit to open any doors for her. Nin self-published four books, managed to sell a few others, but for the most part she was either mocked by critics or (worse) ignored. Today, she is best known for work she probably thought would never see the light of day: Delta Of Venus and, of course, her private journals (which were just as steamy).

The blurb for Delta Of Venus promises “a stunning collection of sexual encounters from the queen of literary erotica” (so you can see why I picked it up, right?). The preface, taken from Nin’s diaries, explains that the collector for whom she wrote “likes it better when it is a narrative, just storytelling, no analysis, no philosophy,” (page viii). Basically, he told her to write all the arty shit she wanted in her own time, and stick to the sucking and fucking on the pages she submitted to him. Nin rose to the challenge, but being told to focus only on the sexy bits led to “violent explosions of poetry” (page xi). She drew on her own and her friends’ experiences, like an old-timey Carrie Bradshaw, and gave them as much literary flourish as she could get away with.

And, yes, we now know the identity of this enigmatic horny benefactor: Roy M. Johnson of Oklahoma (1881-1960), who made his fortune in oil. These men, honestly…

Delta Of Venus definitely has a different “vibe” to Miller and Lawrence, whom we might now consider to be Nin’s contemporaries. She really penetrates (ha!) the psychology of sex, as I presume it was understood at the time. She consciously inserts the sensual and the feminine into the story; as she wrote in her own diary, through this project she “realised that for centuries we had only one model for this literary genre [erotica] – the writing of men,” (page xiiii). She conceived a “language of the senses”, according to the academic types who have all-too-recently actually paid close attention to her work.

Not to contradict myself, but I must warn you that the collection definitely throws you in the deep-end of an icy cold pool: the first story, The Hungarian Adventurer, involves (among other things) graphic depictions of incestuous rape. Don’t confuse sensual and feminine for delicate or fragile! Some of the stories in Delta Of Venus have aged particularly badly (e.g., The Boarding School, which features abuse and gang rape in a Catholic institution), and all are problematic in some measure (by today’s standards, anyway). My advice? Don’t pick this one up if you have any sensitivities around sex or gender or violence that could be triggered by graphic un-woke descriptions of all of the above.

Still, I didn’t hate it? I was surprised, at times I blushed, but I wasn’t as sickened as perhaps I should have been – I was certainly never bored. The quality of Nin’s prose, her mastery of language and insight into desire, don’t excuse the challenging content but they make it damn readable.

Plus, my deep-rooted sex positive feminism simply can’t divorce the content of Delta Of Venus from the context in which it was produced. Nin wrote explicitly about sex in a time when doing so was the sole purview of rich white men (and the irony of a rich white man paying her to do it is simply too delicious to ignore). She wrote about abortion, extramarital affairs, all manner of “inappropriate” desire, without judgement and without fear and without diminishing her characters (something that many writers struggle to do today). Had Delta Of Venus been published for public consumption at the peak of Nin’s “career” (which is not saying much), I can’t even imagine what would have happened to her. She would have been pilloried, by the public and the press, and either died a notorious martyr or a penniless nobody. In that view, we’re lucky to have access to this crucial work today, and it’s worth a read… if you dare.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Delta Of Venus:

  • “Not as erotic as Playboy would have me believe…” – J.J. SPANO
  • “some seriously disturbed stories. child rape isn’t my favorite.” – JS
  • “This was a gift for a friend having surgery.” – dbeedle
  • “I suggest a more accurate title for this book, “Bored with Copulation” by Inane Nincompoop.
    Don’t expect this shoddy diary to enhance your bag of sexual tricks to surprise your lover.” – Where Waldo?
  • “it is a collection of short stories which I don;t reaaly care for. I would rate it as rather trashy! no comparison to 50 shades trilogy” – Cybergrammie
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