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The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.



The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.



Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.”

Page 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort (so much so that I included The Age Of Innocence in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Warning: this review might get a little ranty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel written by Anita Loos, first published in 1925 – one of several novels published that year that are famous for their depictions of the Jazz Age in America. It’s a travesty that this wonderful, hilarious, insightful book lives under the inconceivably large shadow cast by The Great Gatsby. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge success immediately upon publication; the entire first print run sold out the first day it went into stores, it was a best-seller in thirteen different languages, and it counts among its fans James Joyce and Edith Wharton (who called it the Great American Novel). So, why is it always overlooked in discussions of the modern classics? Yet another example of how we value stories about and by men over those of women, hmph! (Yes, I’m getting ranty, I did warn you!)

The book’s full title is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, and this edition also contains its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which was published two years later. The introduction to this edition is quite good, and highly readable. It contains gems like:

“It could be said, therefore, that Loos did not write a version of Beauty and the Beast; instead, she rewrote Beauty as the Beast.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

And:

“The men who perpetually orbit around Lorelei and Dorothy have two major problems: they have too much money in their bank accounts and too much time on their hands. Lorelei and Dorothy are able to solve both their problems at once.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

Loos said she was inspired to write the book after watching her friend, intellectual H.L. Mencken, reduced to a character she likened to a love-struck schoolboy in the presence of a sexy blonde woman. Mencken was a good sport about it. He read her draft, loved it, and saw to its publication. Of the particular brand of humour she displays in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos said:

“In those days I had a friend, Rayne Adams, who used to say that my slant on life was that of a child of ten, chortling with excitement over a disaster…. But I, with my infantile cruelty, have never been able to view even the most impressive human behavior as anything but foolish.”

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

“… during a television interview in London, the question was put to me: ‘Miss Loos, your book was based on an economic situation, the unparalleled prosperity of the Twenties. If you were to write such a book today, what would be your theme?’ And without hesitation, I was forced to answer, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Gentlemen’ (a statement which brought the session abruptly to a close).”

Anita Loos

Alright, alright, I’ll stop quoting Loos (even though I could do it all day, she was endlessly quotable!) and get down to business. Going in, I thought that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be The Great Gatsby meets Bridget Jones’s Diary, but in reality it was more like Gatsby meets The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. It’s fun, and silly, but also insightful and powerful. Actually, charming is probably the best word for it. I couldn’t help but continue through reading But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes as well, so taken was I with Loos’ characters and prose.

The premise of the story is this: beautiful blonde Lorelei Lee decides to try her hand at writing a diary, because a gentleman friend suggested that her thoughts would make for an interesting book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is presented as a transcript of that journal, complete with spelling and grammatical errors that say much about Lorelei’s personality and position. She was working in the movies in Hollywood, she tells us, when she met Mr Gus Eisman, a button manufacturer from Chicago. He decided that her line of work in Hollywood was not “becoming” for a woman of her “potential”, so he installed her in a New York apartment and committed a small fortune to “educating” her. What follows from these opening pages, the entire book, is a knowing wink at every woman who has ever copped a barrage of mansplaining from their boss or their boyfriend or the bloke buying their drinks in a bar.



In the course of her “education”, Lorelei meets Gerry Lamson, a married novelist. He is so taken with her that he decides to divorce his wife, on the proviso (of course) that she’ll leave Eisman and run away with him. Lorelei is flattered, naturally, but wishes to avoid the scandal of involvement in divorce proceedings, and also worries that Eisman might cancel her European cruise ticket if she takes up with another man. Plus, Gerry’s kind of a bore.

Lorelei is also very concerned about her friend, Dorothy, who she believes to be “wasting her time” with a magazine writer named Mencken (a shout-out to Loos’ real-life friend and inspiration for the story). In Lorelei’s view, Dorothy should be lavishing her attentions more strategically, in the direction of the wealthy movie producer Mr Goldmark. So, to draw her friend away from fruitless pursuits, Lorelei brings Dorothy with her on the cruise, and they set sail for Europe together (with Eisman promising to meet them there).

To Lorelei’s dismay, she discovers that former District Attorney Bartlett is also on board, and she reveals to the reader how she came to know him. See, Lorelei once worked as a stenographer in her hometown for one Mr Jennings. Upon finding out that he was a sexual predator, she became “hysterical” and shot him. It sounds brutal, but her re-telling of these events is actually one of the funniest parts of this entire hilarious book. Bartlett is the attorney who prosecuted the case, with little success; apparently, the gentlemen of the jury were so “moved” by Lorelei’s “testimony” (wink-wink) that they acquitted her without question, and the judge – equally taken with her – gifted her the money she needed for a ticket to Hollywood.



Anyway, after some shenanigans on board (involving Bartlett and some military espionage), Lorelei and Dorothy eventually arrive in London. They encounter several impoverished aristocrats who are selling off their jewels to wealthy Americans. One particular £7,500 tiara catches Lorelei’s eye; what’s a poor girl to do but seek out a wealthy man to buy it for her? She settles on Sir Francis Beekman (whom she calls Piggie). He’s rich, but also married, and notoriously stingy. Using a heady combination of flattery and promises of discretion, Lorelei convinces him to buy the coveted tiara for her anyway.

With that taken care of, Dorothy and Lorelei head to Paris, but unbeknownst to them Lady Beekman is hot on their tails, hell-bent on confronting Lorelei about this tiara business. In thirty-five years of marriage, she says, her husband has never once bought her a gift, and she accuses Lorelei of having seduced him. Lady B tries to get her lawyers to steal the tiara back, but Lorelei manages to trick them with a fake one, and everyone goes home happy

When Eisman arrives in Paris, he quickly hustles the girls onto the Orient Express and takes them to Vienna. En route, Lorelei meets staunch Presbyterian moralist and prohibitionist Mr Henry Spoffard. He is (you guessed it) filthy rich, old money from Philadelphia. Eisman is quickly discarded. On one of their early dates, Spoffard takes Lorelei to see Dr Sigmund Freud, who says he cannot possibly analyse her because she has never repressed a desire in her entire life (accurate). Spoffard also later introduces Lorelei to his mother; she’s a tough old battle-axe, but Lorelei wins her over with champagne and charm. When Spoffard proposes, Lorelei accepts, albeit begrudgingly; she finds him rather repulsive, but he has money and prospects enough to make her happy.



When they get back to New York, Lorelei decides that she should “come out” into polite society, now that she’s marrying into the fold, so she plans a debutante ball for herself (honestly, I love this woman!). The party lasts three days, and makes the front pages of the newspapers. Lorelei has so much fun that she decides she might not marry Spoffard after all. She gets Dorothy to tell him that she is pathologically indulgent and extravagant (not that much of a stretch), while she goes on a mammoth shopping spree, charging everything to Spoffard’s accounts. When she stops for lunch, she meets a fascinating screen-writer, who convinces her that she should go ahead with the marriage so that her new husband will finance his film projects and she can star in them. It takes a bit of wrangling to unring the bell, but Lorelei – resourceful, clever Lorelei – manages to convince her fiance that it was all a misguided test of his love. He remorsefully agrees, not just to marry her, but also to finance the first film of her new friend. And so ends Lorelei’s diary, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

(And in the sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Lorelei gives up her film career after she has a child. She decides to become an “authoress”, after all the fun she had writing her diary, and her first project is to tell Dorothy’s life story.)

So, we arrive back at my “controversial” opinion, which I will repeat once more for the cheap seats in the back: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book than The Great Gatsby. They take place in a comparable setting, but Loos’ effort is just so. much. better! I think it’s too easily written off as a funny little story about a silly gold-digger, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a compelling and hilarious account of gender roles, politics, and power in 1920s America. It’s a story about resourcefulness, determination, strategy, and relationships. Compare that to stinkin’ Gatsby, which is pretty much just a cautionary tale about how rich people aren’t as happy as they look – pffft! What a tragedy that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes isn’t the book that teenagers are forced to read in high school; I’m sure it’d teach them a lot more about life, and heck, it’d be a lot more fun for them to read!

Yes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. I particularly encourage you to give it a go if you think that I must be wrong and Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. And, I’m sure I don’t need to say this to the booklovers, but just in case you need a reminder: don’t judge the book by its movie.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

  • “The air head who overrates her intellectual prowess is cute, but this book is a one trick pony. Lorelei simply sees life as “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” she wants to shop for hats, men are her sugar daddies. I’m sure this book was uproariously funny in the 1920’s.

I guess you had to be there.” – J. Rodeck
  • “It wasnt the play its the novel and im an so not satisfied” – Raven Lyons


Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet

I want to tell you something about myself, something that will come as a surprise: I am a huge nerd. Last year, when I bought new bookshelves, I got to revel in the glory of the opportunity to properly alphabetise my entire personal library (so much fun!). Then, I bought more bookshelves, and got to do it all over again! (STILL FUN! I swear!) It inspired me to put together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet. Since then, my alphabetising fingers have been getting itchy… then I came across this series from the inimitable Simon over at Stuck In A Book: his thoughts on an author for every letter of the alphabet. I thought I might shamelessly steal that idea for a single post, and try to put together a list of must-read authors for every letter of the alphabet. Can I do it? Even for X? You’re about to find out!

The A-Z Of Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’re not surprised, right? I mean, if we’re talking must-read authors in my Anglophone corner of the world, and you’re going alphabetical, you’ve got to start with Austen. Despite her surprisingly small oeuvre (only six completed novels, a handful of stories and an incomplete manuscript), she has influenced English literature more than perhaps any other Regency author. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here, and/or Emma here.

Honourable mentions: Maya Angelou, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Atwood

B: The Brontës

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to just one! The Brontës were the most talented literary family of the Victorian era. Their novels – originally published under androgynous pseudonyms – were proto-feminist women-centred works of art that blazed the trail for female writers who came after them (let’s just forget about the Brontë brother, Branwell, who preferred drinking and dirty dancing to poetry and prose). Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here, and/or Jane Eyre here.

Honourable mentions: Fredrik Backman, Alain de Botton, and Brit Bennett

C: Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, Truman Capote was hardly a stand-up guy. He was pretty liberal with his applications of the ol’ creative license. He loved blowing his own horn. He barely hesitated to sell out his best friends when his career needed a boost with a salacious tell-all. And yet, be damned if he wasn’t an incredible, imitable writer. He revolutionised the true crime genre, steering it away from sparse journalistic re-tellings and using the conventions of fiction to weave a story for the reader. Everything he wrote was carefully considered and expertly crafted. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

Honourable mentions: Maxine Beneba Clarke

D: Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s all too easy to forget that the serialised novel was the primary medium of family entertainment back in the Victorian era. Authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so they tended to stretch things out, which means they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being bloated and dull. In fact, Dickens worked incredibly hard to keep his stories interesting and entertaining, to keep his circulation numbers up and keep the cheques coming. Love romance? Dickens has you covered. Military history? Same. Adventure? Crime? Character study? There’s something for everyone in his catalogue, I swear it. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Honourable mentions: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle

E: Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bernadine Evaristo shot to international fame last year when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other… in tandem with Margaret Atwood for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a controversial decision, and it ate up plenty of space in the Opinion and Arts pages, which was warranted but also a bit of a shame. The scandal has overshadowed Evaristo’s many other works and achievements: being the first black British writer to assume the No. 1 spot on the UK fiction paperback chart, for instance, not to mention her previous eight novels and novellas.

Honourable mentions: Nora Ephron, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides


F: Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oh, Elena Ferrante. I think I could write a book about how much I love Elena Ferrante (and I’m not the only one). It’s not just the mystique – she’s the world’s best-known living pseudonymous author – that appeals. Her writing is lyrical, but never overwrought, and translated beautifully into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. You should, of course, begin with her Neapolitan Quartet, her series of novels following the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grew up together in mid-20th century Naples with all the violence, poverty, and oppression that entailed. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend (the first book of the Neapolitan Quartet) here.

Honourable mentions: Karen Joy Fowler

G: Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is basically the Madonna of the Australian literary scene. She’s had her ups and downs, she’s come in and out of fashion, but she reinvents herself so constantly and completely that it’s impossible for anyone not to respect her art. She’s written everything – from essay collections to thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction to true crime – and her craft is second to none. I’m yet to encounter a work of Garner’s that I haven’t enthusiastically devoured, and immediately flagged to re-read.

Honourable mentions: Stella Gibbons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Roxane Gay

H: Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway can be a bit hit-and-miss. Case in point: I fell in love with his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, in an undergrad English Lit unit, but I was exhausted and bored by The Sun Also Rises. He never actually wrote the six-word short story for which he’s well-known (“Baby Shoes”, you know the one), but I’ve heard The Old Man And The Sea is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. It would seem that different Hemingways appeal to different readers: the only way to find yours is to give his books and stories a go for yourself. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Honourable mentions: Chloe Hooper

I: Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The man won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He’s got an OBE. Just about everything he’s ever written has been shortlisted (or won!) for a major literary prize. What more do you need? Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated and lauded English-language authors in the world – he’s a must-read if for no other reason than simple curiosity. The good news is, as far as I’m concerned, his books totally hold up. They’re slightly strange, but not too off-the-wall. They’re sparse, but not underdone. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

J: Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve always said it’s such a shame that the Scandinavians are so well-renowned for their crime noir, when they’ve got brilliant comic novelists like Jonas Jonasson. From humble beginnings as a Swedish blogger, Jonasson has gone on to hit international best-seller lists with his delightful novels about unlikely heroes. His writing is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and warm your cockles, all at once. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Honourable mentions: Tayari Jones


K: Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephen King has published over sixty books, and combined they’ve sold some 350 million copies around the world. While he tends towards the darker side – horror, thriller, the supernatural – he still has plenty of options for readers who are, shall we say… a bit chicken (myself included!). Still, he’s called the “King Of Horror” (yes, a pun on his name) for very good reason. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you should definitely check him out at his gore-iest. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

L: Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wondering who the heck Anita Loos is, and what she’s doing in an A-Z list of must-read authors? You’re probably not the only one. I certainly hadn’t heard of her before I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list (in fact, I wouldn’t have known Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was anything other than a Marilyn Munroe film). This, Keeper Upperers, is one of the great travesties of our time. Anita Loos was a brilliant comic screenwriter, the first salaried one in Hollywood, and she suffered from that awful chronic condition that affects so many successful women: loving an arsehole of a husband who sucked her dry and kept her in the shadows. Don’t let him win, folks. Don’t sleep on Anita Loos. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Honourable mentions: Melissa Lucashenko

M: Carmen Maria Machado

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

There’s no delight quite like that of discovering an author at the beginning of their very bright career. I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where she had been invited to speak after her debut book – a collection of short stories, notoriously difficult to sell – won her international acclaim. She has since also published an incredible memoir, In The Dream House, a true work of art that promises to revolutionise the genre of memoir and has already carved out a spot in the queer literary canon. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Honourable mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison

N: Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know if it helps or harms Vladimir Nabokov’s reputation that his name has become synonymous with Lolita, a book written from the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert, about his twisted obsession with his teenage stepdaughter. It’s stomach-churning subject matter, to be sure, but to write a book so fascinating, so captivating, about someone so abhorrent is surely a feat not many could manage. Add into the equation the fact that English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet he mastered it so completely as to write more lyrically and more beautifully than any of his Anglophone contemporaries… well, that’s just gob-smacking, isn’t it?

Honourable mentions: Maggie Nelson, Celeste Ng

O: Susan Orlean

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

Susan Orlean won herself a new legion of fans when her drunk tweets made the headlines last month, giving those of us who have long loved her writing ample opportunity to say: told you so! She is perhaps best-known for her book of The Orchid Thief, based on a piece of investigative journalism into the case of (you guessed it) some stolen orchids. My personal favourite, however, is The Library Book – her surprisingly intimate, incredibly detailed, booklover catnip exploration of the Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986. The point is, there’s something in Orlean’s oeuvre for everyone.

Honourable mentions: Maggie O’Farrell


P: Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I had a devil of a time tracking down a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my local secondhand bookstore haunts. It turns out, readers are still so enamored with her work that they’re unwilling to part with their copies. I suspected, prior to reading her work, that her enduring popularity was due to the mythology surrounding her life and death. She was depressed! Damaged! Beautiful! But it turns out her writing is just as beautiful as she was. Every time I pick up one of her books, I fight against the equal and competing urges to throw them across the room and hug them to my chest. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Honourable mentions: Max Porter

Q: Daniel Quinn

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s an over-used phrase, to be sure, but Daniel Quinn was surely ahead of his time. He was using fiction to explore environmentalism and the dangers of an anthropocentric worldview long before it was cool. Some of his ideas were controversial (if I understand correctly, international efforts to aid countries ravaged by famines made the famines… worse, somehow?), but he still managed to merge philosophy and fiction in a way that the average person (i.e., me) could understand. Plus, he coined a whole bunch of phrases that have slipped into common parlance in certain circles (see: the boiling frog, the Great Forgetting).

R: Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Sally Rooney: the millennial wunderkind. She’s been called everything from the voice of a generation to the 21st century’s answer to J.D. Salinger. All this despite having only two full-length books (Conversations With Friends, and Normal People) under her belt. And she’s just 29 years old. What have YOU done lately? The world is waiting with bated breath for the next great novel from the pen of its newest literary darling. I’m sure she’s up to the challenge. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Honourable mentions: Jean Rhys

S: David Sedaris

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

I’m a relatively recent convert to David Sedaris, but holy heck – he’s got me hook, line, and sinker. He is truly the master of humorous autobiographical writing, and can find the funny in even the most dire of life circumstances. (Take, for instance, his musings on his failed attempts to panic-buy at the onset of a global pandemic.) His secret sauce seems to be a unique combination of cutting insight – no one is spared – and equally powerful self-deprecation. I can’t think of anyone else who could insult someone in such a way that they laughed ’til they cried, and make fun of himself at the same time, in quite the way Sedaris can. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Honourable mentions: Mary Shelley, Zadie Smith, and John Steinbeck

T: Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I couldn’t put together a list of must-read authors without including one of the Russian masters. Leo Tolstoy has a reputation for being wordy and, look, it’s not undeserved. War And Peace comes in at about 587k words. Anna Karenina at 340k. (For reference: most books published today come in well under 100k.) And yet, his popularity endures. That’s because his novels contain some universal truths, some enduring sensibility that we can all relate to. Either that, or people just really like showing off.

Honourable mentions: Maria Tumarkin


U: Gabrielle Union

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, fine, maybe I’ve been swayed by my love of late-90s teen comedy movies (and U is a bear of a letter). Still, I stand by the inclusion of Gabrielle Union in an A-Z list of must-read authors. She has parlayed her early success playing teenagers in various competitive and romantic dilemmas into a career as an activist in women’s health and well-being. Her thesis is We’re Going To Need More Wine, a sentiment that was oddly prescient given that it was published long before the world fell to pieces. She has since expanded her creative efforts to include children’s books, focused on positive representations of non-traditional families.

V: Sarah Vaughn

Anatomy Of A Scandal - Sarah Vaughan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, we’re getting down to the bear letters, but I’m going strong! V is for Vaughn, as in Sarah Vaughn – not the jazz singer, but the British novelist and journalist. She has parlayed her illustrious career writing for outlets like The Guardian into best-selling fiction that explores power, privilege, and politics. Even with a bunch of success notches already punched into her belt – including film and television rights, awards, and over twenty translations of her work – Vaughan is still going strong.

W: Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alice Walker is, without doubt, one of the greatest living American writers and feminists (or, as per the term she herself coined, “womanist”). Most of her best-known full length fiction was published in the ’70s and ’80s, but it continues to resonate – particularly in the age of #MeToo and #BLM – with its searing depictions of racism, sexism, violence and resilience. But she’s not just a wildly successful and brilliant novelist: her poetry, her short fiction, her journalism, and (most importantly) her activism are also ground-breaking and vital contributions to contemporary life.

Honourable mentions: Colson Whitehead, Charlotte Wood, and Edith Wharton

X: Xenophon

A History Of My Times - Xenophon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, I had to reach WAY back into the archives to find an X I could get behind… but I found one! Xenophon was an Athenian philosopher, and I inherited one of his books as a result of merging marital bookshelves. Turns out, my husband is onto something: a lot of what we know of Ancient Greece is derived from his histories, as well as that which we know of his mate Socrates. He was also kind enough to write in Attic Greek – the old-timey equivalent of plain language – which means his books were more accessible to his contemporaries, and they’ve been a boon for translators in the modern world.

Y: Hanya Yanagihara

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

You’d be forgiven for associating Hanya Yanagihara’s name only with her international best-seller and near-universally acclaimed novel, A Little Life. It has won (and broken) hearts for five years now, and it’s still going strong. But Yanagihara is a multi-talented gal; she’s also a travel writer, a magazine editor, and she wrote a previous novel (based on the real story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) that is arguably just as worthy of attention. She is a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature, beloved by critics and readers alike.

Z: Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief, made the Second World War tangible for youngsters in a way that not many other contemporary writers have managed. Through his story of the young girl who steals books and learns to read (narrated by Death, into the bargain), he’s captured their heads and hearts and maybe – just maybe – taught the kids enough about the horrors of world conflict to make them inclined to stop history repeating itself. What’s extra-interesting is that the success of that novel led him to take a decade-long break from writing and publishing, a dry spell only recently broken with the rains of his new novel, Bridge Of Clay (an epic coming-of-age story). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.


Book Reviews By Category

American

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Australian

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
Tracker – Alexis Wright
The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein – Coming Soon!
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

Books In Translation

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante

Children’s

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Classic

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Emma – Jane Austen
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Sanditon – Jane Austen
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli
Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Fantasy

The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Graphic Novel

Good Talk – Mira Jacob

Horror

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Flowers In The Attic – VC Andrews
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Memoir & Autobiography

American Sniper – Chris Kyle
Finding Nevo – Nevo Zisin
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Mystery & Thriller

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
The Lake House – Kate Morton
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan

Non-Fiction

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer
Religion For Atheists – Alain de Botton
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge – Coming Soon!

Poetry

The Divine Comedy – Dante

Russian

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Science Fiction

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Martian – Andy Weir
Under The Dome – Stephen King

Short Stories

Her Body And Other Bodies – Carmen Maria Machado

True Crime

The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Michelle McNamara – Coming Soon!
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
The Library Book – Susan Orlean – Coming Soon!

Young Adult

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Paper Towns – John Green
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

Book Reviews By Title

A

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
American Sniper – Chris Kyle
Amongst Women – John McGahern
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

B

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

C

Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman
The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time – Mark Haddon

D

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Divergent – Veronica Roth
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
Dyschronia – Jennifer Mills

E

Emma – Jane Austen
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

F

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer
Finding Nevo – Nevo Zisin
Flowers In The Attic – VC Andrews
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

G

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
The Golden Bowl – Henry James
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Good Talk – Mira Jacob
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

H

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

I

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Michelle McNamara – Coming Soon!
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

J

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

K

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
The Lake House – Kate Morton
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
The Library Book – Susan Orlean – Coming Soon!
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

M

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Money – Martin Amis
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
My Sister, The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

N

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos
Normal People – Sally Rooney

O

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

P

Paper Towns – John Green
Party Going – Henry Green
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Q

R

Religion for Atheists – Alain de Botton
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

S

Sanditon – Jane Austen
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Monica Lewycka
A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
Still Alice – Lisa Genova
The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli

T

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Tracker – Alexis Wright
The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein – Coming Soon!
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

U

Ulysses – James Joyce
Under The Dome – Stephen King

V

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

W

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

X

Y

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Z

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