Everything Feels Like The End Of The World is “a collection of short speculative fiction exploring possible futures in an Australia not so different from our present day to one thousands of years into an unrecognisable future”. The wonderful team at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
These short, sharp stories are like fireworks. Fitzgerald is clearly a writing talent to be reckoned with. I particularly appreciated her brilliant use of simile and metaphor, the kinds of descriptions that make you say “woah” out loud.
Really, the only downside to reading Everything Feels Like The End Of The World is that Fitzgerald writes so well, the science fiction (science faction?) is all too believable. It’s straight-up frightening. The intensity with which she depicts the fires and floods, the confused yearning she captures so beautifully about the future and whether or not to bring kids into it – it’s honestly terrifying.
I couldn’t sleep after I finished this book; I needed a glass of wine and a cuddle with my dog until my heart stopped pounding. It’s scarier than any “horror” novel I’ve ever read.
So, obviously, I need to offer trigger warnings for natural disasters and in/fertility in Everything Feels Like The End Of The World. If you can handle that, and you’re a fan of Black Mirror, you absolutely must read this collection – it hits a lot of the same, terrifying, notes. This is an incredible debut collection, Fitzgerald’s writing belies her early career status, but be sure to take care of yourself while reading it.
I was truly blown away by the TV series The Cry when I caught it by chance on the ABC a few years ago. I didn’t actually realise it was adapted from a book until I came across a copy! So, even though the ending is “spoiled” for me (I couldn’t forget it if I tried, it’s brilliantly plotted), I was still eager to read The Cry and see how it unfolds on the page.
From the blurb: “When a baby goes missing on a lonely roadside in Australia, it sets off a police investigation that will become a media sensation and dinner-table talk across the world. Lies, rumours and guilt snowball, causing the parents, Joanna and Alistair, to slowly turn against each other.”
Naturally, the premise of The Cry evokes Madeline McCann, for the tender age of the child and the worldwide scrutiny of the parents in the case, but also Azaria Chamberlain for its Australian setting. It’s a modern take on the missing child, told in the style of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn (if you’re fans of their books, you definitely want to pick this one up).
The family at the heart of the story – Joanna, Alistair, and baby boy Noah – are embarking on a long-haul flight from Glasgow to Melbourne when The Cry begins. Joanna is a first-time mother, and the former mistress of British Labour spin-doctor Alistair. The nine-week-old child cries the entire flight, so Joanna is understandably stressed (to say the least) while Alistair remains remarkably calm and actually manages to get some refreshing sleep (typical). Joanna is relieved that when they reach Melbourne, now that the ordeal of the flight is over and Noah is finally asleep.
Of course, the ordeal is only beginning. Baby Noah goes missing, taken from his car seat while Joanna and Alistair were picking up a couple of items from a grocery store.
All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in Part 1, but it shifts in Part 2 to alternating first-person perspectives (more on that in a minute). The timeline of The Cry also shifts back and forth, from events in a courtroom where a trial is taking place back to the events around The Incident, before it settles into a roughly chronological rhythm.
The blurb doesn’t exactly advertise what I’m going to say next, so I’m not sure if it constitutes a “spoiler” – so, heads-up etc. if that would bother you.
The first-person accounts are those of Joanna, and Alistair’s ex-wife, Alexandra. The Cry actually offers a lot more insight into Alexandra’s perspective than I recall being in the TV series. She’s a natural suspect in Noah’s disappearance, if only for the fact that the reason for Joanna and Alistair’s trip to Melbourne is to fight a custody battle for a child from his first marriage. In the book, we can see more about her role in what’s unfolded and her conflicted feelings.
What’s great, though, is that The Cry isn’t a “woman v. woman” thriller. Even though there’s not much love lost between Alexandra and Joanna, Fitzgerald doesn’t pit them against each other in the sympathy stakes.
Both are harangued by the press and the public in the wake of Noah’s disappearance – though Joanna, obviously, more so. It feels sadly realistic and believable, the way that Joanna is picked apart. She’s too distraught, she’s not distraught enough, she shouldn’t smile, she should cry, what’s she wearing, why did she behave this way… It’s a public stoning we’ve seen play out all too many times.
The Cry isn’t a police procedural, so you won’t find any hard-drinking detectives declaring they’re “too old for this” or they “won’t rest until they find Noah”. In fact, the police are increasingly baffled by Noah’s disappearance (and they do a piss poor job of communicating with the parents and the public, to boot).
The ending didn’t punch quite as hard in the book as it did on-screen, but I put that down to Jenna Coleman’s incredible performance as Joanna and Glendyn Ivin’s masterful direction, rather than any fault in Fitzgerald’s writing. The Cry still has a brilliant twist (or two), no matter which way you experience it.
It’s a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. I really want to emphasise that The Cry isn’t just for thriller readers; anyone who likes ethical grey areas and/or the complexity of modern families will rip through it. Clearly, there’s some triggering content (child/infant loss, mental illness), but if you can cope with that, it’s definitely worth a read.
“This was an interesting and puzzling story. I enjoyed the writing style of the author and the basis of the plot. What I didn’t like was the character of the mother…whiny, weak, and worn. Often, I put down books written about women who are ‘man crazy’ and lose their own souls just to have a guy pay attention to them. Plus, why did this baby cry ALL THE TIME? Take it to a Dr.” – onecarolinagal
“If you’ve not lived with a psychopath then you might not appreciate this book.” – Lovinavidadaluz
The recent Keeping Up With The Penguins trend of reviewing short-novels-by-dead-white-guys-that-got-turned-into-movies ends (promise!) with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This is a beautiful Penguin edition of the 1925 novel. I picked it up from my favourite secondhand bookstore (as always), and yet it looks brand new, never read. In the front they’ve printed Fitzgerald’s original dedication, to his wife Zelda. I thought that was really sweet… until I later learned that she was quite a piece of work, and would probably have kicked up a royal stink if he hadn’t dedicated the book to her. I can respect that.
Fitzgerald began planning The Great Gatsby in 1923, but it was a long and laborious process to get to the finished product. In his first year of writing he pumped out 18,000 words, only to scrap it all and start again. There were stacks of revisions, even entire chapters re-written, before it went to press. Fitzgerald also changed the title more often than he changed his underpants. His reported favourite was “Under The Red, White and Blue”, but it was vetoed by his publishers (and his wife, ha!).
The Great Gatsby, in its final form, received mixed reviews and sold “poorly” – just 20,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing himself to be a failure (boohoo). Shortly after his death, the book experienced a strong resurgence, thanks in large part to the Council on Books in Wartime that distributed 155,000 copies to American soldiers fighting in WWII. It is now considered a contender for that ever-elusive accolade: The Great American Novel. It has been adapted for film, television, literature, opera, ballet, radio, and even computer games. I vaguely remember seeing the 2013 movie at some point, but my memories are mostly just glitter and sparkly costumes. The only concrete fact that my brain saw fit to retain was that Leonardo launched a thousand memes.
Anyway, what’s the story? Well, a young Yale graduate slash Great War veteran (Nick Carraway) moves to Long Island to work as a bond salesman and basically sort himself out. He ends up friends with his rich neighbour – Jay Gatsby – who throws a lot of fancy parties. (He’s really rich, okay? It’s very important that you know that.)
So, Nick just kinda hangs out there a bit. His only other social outings are visiting his flapper cousin and her philandering husband, who live just up the road.
As I was reading, I couldn’t stop asking myself: what’s the point? I mean, a swotty young guy discovers that he likes drinking and pretty girls, and he hangs around his rich neighbour’s hectic parties – so what?
Later, we find out that Gatsby is actually in love with Nick’s beautiful cousin, and has quasi-stalked her for years (but we’re supposed to think that’s romantic, not creepy). He uses Nick to engineer a rendezvous, and finally gets into her pants. They continue hooking up on the sly for a while, until her husband Mr Philanderer finds out and gets all jealous (ironic). There’s a crazy show-down at a hotel in the city, and the beautiful cousin runs over her husband’s mistress in Gatsby’s car (yes, shit really escalated, but it’s not over yet).
Because of the car, everyone assumes that Gatsby is the one who was driving, and it’s all very I Know What You Did Last Summer. The mistress’s husband avenges her death by killing Gatsby, and then himself. The beautiful cousin gets back with her husband, and they run away together. Nick tries to throw a funeral for Gatsby and nobody comes. The end.
Fitzgerald famously drew inspiration from the parties he attended in Long Island in the early 1920s, and many true events from his life are reflected in the plot (he fell in love with a girl and needed to “prove himself” with material success before he could marry her, and so on). You don’t have to try too hard to pick apart the Very Important Themes in The Great Gatsby, a lot of stuff about the façade of class mobility in America and the excesses of wealth and the recklessness of ambitious youth. Blah, blah, blah… It all boils down to a cautionary tale, and a pretty boring one at that.
How many times do we need to expose the “underbelly” of the Great American Dream? It is a myth, we get it. I mean, maybe they didn’t back in the 1920s, but we’ve all seen American Beauty now, so I’m not sure how much The Great Gatsby adds to that narrative.
I fail to understand how this has become a staple of the high school English syllabus. Is it because it’s a “classic” that’s short enough to squeeze into a teenager’s limited attention span? Do the grown-ups think it’s “relateable”? The characters do all talk and act like rich, indulgent teenagers I suppose, like an old-timey version of The OC. I know I’m not an authority, but I think there are better choices for reading assignments. I mean, as far as the literary merit goes, to me Fitzgerald sounded like a wannabe poet trying too hard to write romantic prose. He told a friend that he wanted The Great Gatsby to be a “consciously artistic achievement”, but it came off sounding like desperate, over-reaching wank half of the time.
So, in conclusion, no. Not for me. No, thank you. My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. I really didn’t care about the characters or the story at all, and finer examples of American literature abound as far as I’m concerned – but by all means, check this one out for yourself if you want to see just how far it falls short of its reputation.
“Hated this book. It was a total waste of time. If I wanted to be depressed and read about unfaithfulness in marriage, I would read the court records. Don’t know why this is a classic.” – Amazon Customer
“Wow, even better than the Cliff notes I read in High School.” – Marc Reeves
“I had to buy this for my son for school. He did not like the book but that’s not Amazon’s fault…” – D. Basuino
“One star is too many, but it is the minimum. The only reason I read this was for a class. I gave the teacher a stinker review as well.The book is a pointless exercise in futility about pointless stupid people. The only point to the story is that people with money are just as trashy, if not more so, than people without. The characters have no development, are barely two dimensional, do stupid things for no reason and face no consequences for their veniality.This books is the literary equivalent of being stuck in a window seat on a airplane for 14 hours needs to a drunken, smelly creep with bad breath and smelly gas who talks at you for the whole flight about his pointless job. For being such a thin book, it is the hardest reading I have ever had to do.Of course, it is even more aggravating that the kindle edition costs $11 for a book you can get at a bookstore for less than a dollar.” – Heinrick Ludwig von Mencken
Can you believe we made it through another year? Thankfully, 2022 went down a little smoother than the years prior. As always, I’m amazed – looking back – at how many brilliant books I had the opportunity to read this year. Check out the best books of 2022 (back-list AND new release).
Legitimate Sexpectations by Katrina Marson
I considered myself fairly open-minded and well-informed about sex education prior to reading Legitimate Sexpectations – even though I received little more than the standard “how to use a pad” and “how the sperm penetrates the egg” at school, as far as I can recall. And yet, Marson opened my eyes, again and again, as to how the system as it stands is failing kids (and adults). Most importantly, she doesn’t just identify the problems; Marson outlines potential solutions. I want to thrust Legitimate Sexpectations into the hands of every politician, parent, and school principal. It’s one of the best nonfiction books of 2022, one that has the power to affect real change. Read my full review of Legitimate Sexpectations here.
56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard
Is it too soon for a COVID-19 murder mystery? Catherine Ryan Howard surely hopes not. 56 Days is her latest high-concept crime thriller, set in Dublin in the early days of the city’s first lock-down. It’s a well written, well paced, with tantalising clues and a couple of truly excellent fake-out twists. The couple at the heart of the story barely know each other when they’re forced into the pressure cooker pandemic situation, so the reader gets two (or more?) very different perspectives on the same events. I thoroughly enjoyed 56 Days – so my verdict is that it’s not too soon for a COVID-19 novel, as long as it’s a good one. Read my full review of 56 Days here.
Here Be Leviathans by Chris Flynn
I loved, loved, loved Chris Flynn’s last book, Mammoth – it was one of the best books I read in 2020. So, when I saw he had a new book coming out, I sat up straight and said “yes, please!” in my polite voice. Here Be Leviathans is a collection of nine short stories, narrated by animals, places, objects, and even the (very) odd human. A grizzly bear on the run, a plane seat in a terrifying crash, a genetically modified platypus with the power of speech – each and every one, bizarre and brilliant. Flynn really pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from perspective and it takes a special, rare writing talent to pull it off. Read my full review of Here Be Leviathans here.
Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe
If you loved Say Nothing and Empire Of Pain (like I did), you’ll be overjoyed (as I was) to get your hands on a copy of Rogues, a collection of Patrick Radden Keefe’s most celebrated articles from The New Yorker and one of the best books of 2022. These delightfully detailed investigative pieces focus on his favourite subjects: “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial”. Honestly, I could talk about each and every one of these stories for hours. They’re all masterfully crafted, perfectly balanced, and totally gripping. Read my full review of Rogues here.
The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
The farcical premise and witty dialogue have made The Importance Of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play. I can attest to the fact that it’s a lot more fun than The Picture Of Dorian Gray, to boot. Wilde’s wit and insight shines at full strength throughout, and he gently pokes at the social mores and conventions of the time while still maintaining a timeless quality. It’s still beloved by critics, readers, and theatre-goers alike, and I’m happy to join them in singing its praises. It’s a quick read, remarkably clever, and delightfully ridiculous. Read my full review of The Importance Of Being Earnest here.
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Very few blurbs have grabbed me like that of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being. It’s a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. I mean… isn’t that fascinating?! I was very pleased to discover that the contents of Ozeki’s novel – one of the best books I read in 2022 – totally lived up to the high, high expectations that blurb set. Read my full review of A Tale For The Time Being here.
Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon
I inhaled Weather Girl in one sitting. The plot is just the right level of ridiculous for a rom-com, the characters are well-developed and well-intentioned, and it has plenty of snort-laughs to offer. Best of all, though, were the steamy and – this is key – realistic sex scenes! Honestly, I wanted to high-five Solomon through the page. For once, rom-com characters experience the actual awkwardness and anxiety of intimacy with someone new, without it ruining the vibe. I gave this one five stars for that alone, one of the best books of 2022 for sure. Read my full review of Weather Girl here.
Sadvertising by Ennis Ćehić
Every so often, a short story collection comes along that changes the game completely. In 2017, it was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties. I’m pretty confident that Ennis Ćehić’s Sadvertising is next. It’s a collection of short, sharp stories about modern life, technology, and marketing, and one of the best books of 2022. The stories are drenched in black humour, existential dread, and late-capitalist yearning. Some of them are seriously short – as in, 1-2 pages – so they’re quick to read, but deeply resonant. It struck me as I read through the collection that it would be an especially great read for fans of Black Mirror and the Gruen Transfer. Read my full review of Sadvertising here.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace is a fascinating and compelling work of historical fiction, one that tells us just as much about Canadian society and gender roles and the field of psychiatry at the time as it does the crimes of Grace Marks. I also loved the sneaky Gothic elements, which felt very true to form for a story of this nature. This book both satisfied my Murderino curiosity and met high literary standards – no mean feat, as it would have been easy to make this story schlocky and scandalous. Atwood has expressed some troubling views of late, but damn if this wasn’t one of the best books I read in 2022. Read my full review of Alias Grace here.
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
Karen Joy Fowler wrote one of my favourite and most-often-recommended books, so I did an excited “squeeee!” when I saw she had a new one coming out. Booth is superbly readable. The pages flow by even when nothing particularly thrilling is happening. Fowler paints intimate portraits of each family member, and the narration includes deft wink-nods to the reader and the future. I was most impressed by the way Fowler kept the day-to-day family drama in the foreground – it struck me as very realistic. My hat goes off to her once again – she’s written an incredible, timely, and provocative novel, one of the best books of 2022. Read my full review of Booth here.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Of all the great books I read this year, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks was the first one that came to mind when I sat down to write my list of the best books of 2022. To call it a ‘biography’ feels reductive, as it’s so much more than dates and the facts of a life. It’s a masterpiece of journalistic non-fiction, written by a first-time writer no less. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot! Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.
Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix
Setting aside any regards for its contents, Horrorstor is one of the best books of 2022 for design, alone. Look at it! It’s formatted to look like an IKEA catalogue, complete with an order form for a copyright page and product descriptions for chapter headers. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful tomes I’ve ever had the privilege of placing on my shelves. The concept is brilliant, too: haunted IKEA. Doesn’t that just send shivers down your spine? But it’s not all schlocky spooks and jump-scares. This story has hidden depths. Hendrix mines the mind-fuck of consumerism and late-stage capitalism to fuel your nightmares. Read my full review of Horrorstor here.
The Strangers by Katherena Vermette
Despite the (very) heavy subject matter and Vermette’s talent for stark realism, The Strangers is surprisingly readable. The pages fly by! It really exceeded my expectations, and I’m still mulling over it, months later. It’s “a searing exploration of race, class, inherited trauma, and matrilineal bonds that – despite everything – refuse to be broken”. Katherena Vermette is a Red River Métis (Michif) writer, from the heart of Métis nation (Canada), and her heritage permeates this incredible First Nations novel – one of the best books of 2022. Read my full review of The Strangers here.
Calypso by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is a must-read auto-buy author for me now, but I’m forcing myself to take it slow. I make myself read only one book of his at a time, instead of gobbling them all down at once. I started with Me Talk Pretty One Day, then last year Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, and now in 2022 Calypso – a collection of autobiographical essays that (once again) was one of my best reads of the year. Even though the content of this one is a bit darker in parts, he still writes with the humour and panache that makes him unique. It’s impossible not to be impressed by his mastery of the form, the way in which he can punch in any direction and still manage to remain thoroughly likeable and hilarious. Read my full review of Calypso here.
Odd Hours by Ania Bas
There’s been no shortage of quirky protagonists in recent years, but Gosia in Odd Hours is a different breed. She’s like the Polish love-child of an Ottessa Moshfegh character and a Fredrik Backman character, with a little of a Gail Honeyman character thrown in. The dark, wry humour keeps the story entertaining, rather than wearisome, but it’s far from a light-hearted rom-com. It lives up to the blurb’s promise of “a razor-sharp social comedy about human connection”. The plot builds to an unconventionally happy ending that will delight odd ducks everywhere. Read my full review of Odd Hours here.
Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata
As with Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings before, Life Ceremony was translated into English from the original Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori – and, once again, she’s done a fantastic job. It’s a collection of “weird, out of this world” short stories that mix “taboo-breaking horror with feminist revenge fables”. Exactly as you’d expect from Murata if you’ve read her work before, it’s full of the joyfully strange aspects of human nature and surreal conceits that will blow your mind. The stories vary in length and complexity, but they’re all fascinating in equal measure. Read my full review of Life Ceremony here.
The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald
I was truly blown away by the TV series The Cry when I caught it by chance on the ABC a few years ago. I didn’t actually realise it was adapted from a book until I came across a copy! Even though the ending was ‘spoiled’ for me, I was still keen to read it – and it was still completely gripping. The Cry is a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. And if, like me, you’ve already seen the show, trust me when I say that it’s still worth a read – it’s one of the best books I read in 2022! Read my full review of The Cry here.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
One of my most recent reads is also one of the best books of 2022 (in my humble opinion). Demon Copperhead is surely destined to become a contemporary classic, an essential component of the burgeoning canon of books about the generation of lost boys in 21st century America. Kingsolver crafts a compelling adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic novel, David Copperfield, transporting the story – complete with abusive parents, neglect, poverty, disease, and loss – to the Southern Appalachian mountains of Virginia. Even Kingsolver’s Uriah Heep character is every bit as creepy as the original, if you can believe it! Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.
It’s easy to forget that some iconic books – classics that we were forced to read in high-school, that SparkNotes makes memes about now – weren’t always held up as the pinnacle of literature. Many of the “most loved” books today were woefully underappreciated in their own time. Some of them were downright derided. Here are thirteen classic books that weren’t well received… at first.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley’s now-classic dystopia, complete with sex, drugs, and “feelies” – got some positive press upon its release in 1932. Philosopher Bertrand Russell praised it, saying that Huxley “has shown his usually masterly skill” and Dame Rebecca West called it Huxley’s “most accomplished novel”. But he faced some heavy criticism, too. Fellow sci-fi author H.G. Wells railed against Huxley for “betraying the future as a concept”. A review published in The Guardian was particularly savage: “the title which he gave to one of his earlier books, These Barren Leaves, is applicable to very much that he has written…. This book fails both as a satire and romance…. It is easier to exploit the possibilities of mental death than to meet the demands of creative life.” Read my full review of Brave New World here.
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
It might surprise you to know that The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was almost as controversial when it was first released in 1885 as it is today. As recently as 2016, the classic American novel was removed from one Virginia public school district, on the basis that it includes inappropriate language and racial slurs. 130 years prior, the Concord Public Library committee held a very similar view: “the veriest trash… rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,”. They, too, chose to ban the book. Upon hearing that news, Twain is reported to have said “This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Brontës famously published their works using androgynous pseudonyms (Emily going by “Ellis Bell”), but that didn’t stop reviewers going to town on her only published novel, Wuthering Heights. Graham’s Lady Magazine wrote at the time: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors,”. The Examiner said “as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages”. Emily, being notoriously shy and reluctant to publish at all, probably didn’t read her own press – good thing, too, if those reviews are anything to go by. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Even though Gone With The Wind was wildly popular with readers immediately upon release (it was the best-selling fiction book two years running, in 1936 and 1937), critics didn’t share their enthusiasm. Reviewer for The New York Times, Ralph Thompson, said “I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to say, 500 pages… Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter.” That’s a sick burn all on its own, but critics rightly also zeroed in on Mitchell’s deeply problematic and revisionist depictions of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction. Those (very justified) criticisms have only amplified over time.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I have been very vocal about my own dislike of The Great Gatsby, and I am pleased to report that many early readers and reviewers agreed with me. The novel – now considered one of the classic books of the Jazz Age – was considered a fall from form for Fitzgerald, “an inconsequential performance by a once-promising author who had grown bored and cynical”, and reviewers were “quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today”. The plot was also called “improbable”, and its style “painfully forced”. Fitzgerald was apparently so bummed out by these reviews that he signed off a telegram to his publisher: “Yours in great depression”. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
One of the (many) funny things about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the contrast in its reception on different continents. In the U.K., where newspapers had a huge staff of experienced reviewers and literary critics, they called it “a phenomenal literary work, a philosophical, metaphysical, and poetic romance”, and “one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most amusing of modern books”. Meanwhile, in the New World (U.S.), where experienced critics were few and far between, baffled journalists trying to wade through Melville’s mountain of prose declared it “not worth the money asked for it, either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper” and “a crazy sort of affair”. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides of the pond, but doesn’t that just prove the rule? Read my full review of Moby Dick here.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Look, examples abound that prove Ulysses should be on any list of classic books that weren’t well received. Even today, respected as a load-bearing pillar in the modernist canon, most readers and reviewers regard it with confusion more so than admiration or anything else. Some of my favourite Ulysses slams include Virginia Woolf writing in her diary that it was: “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating,”. See also The Sporting Times, who wrote that it was “written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine,”. Read my full review of Ulysses here.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller threw a decades-long tantrum when Catch-22 wasn’t received as well as he thought it should have been. Even though The New York Times initially called it “a dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights,”, a second review in the same paper said “[it is] repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest,”. Despite Heller’s big hopes, it didn’t win a single award, not even the much coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Heller remained bitter about it until the day he died. Read my full review of Catch-22 here.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Angry teenagers forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in English Lit classes would be thrilled to know how poorly it was received upon its release in 1951. It was called everything from “disappointing”, to “a near miss”, to “wholly repellent”, to “peculiarly offensive”. Most reviewers seemed to take particular issue with the divisive protagonist-narrator, Holden Caulfield, whose adolescent angst was declared “wearisome” by the New Republic. Older wowsers didn’t like that he was running around getting drunk and trying to get it on with sex workers, either – a position that certain school board members still hold today, it would seem. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Kafka was the very definition of “underappreciated in his own time”, and he knew it, too. His diaries and letters are full of laments about his work and his general malaise, self-deprecation taken to the extreme. Today, The Metamorphosis is his best-known work and widely regarded as one of the most brilliant allegories ever written – but it was barely read when it was first published in 1915, and even Kafka himself didn’t like it in retrospect. He wrote that he “[was] reading The Metamorphosis at home and find[ing] it bad,”, that he felt a “great antipathy” towards it and its “unreadable ending”. The bulk of Kafka’s other work wasn’t published until after his death, and it certainly wasn’t widely read or beloved until many years later.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Long before it was a HBO series, or the symbol of white feminist resistance against the Trump administration, The Handmaid’s Tale was a 1986 novel met with a reaction that could be best summed up as: “meh”. The New York Times said it “lacks imagination” (which is true, technically, given that Atwood has said time and again that everything she included in the book has happened or is happening somewhere in the world). It was also called, by various other outlets, “short on characterisation,” “thinly textured,” and (my personal favourite) “paranoid poppycock”. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Grapes Of Wrath was basically America’s first big Hate Read. In 1939, everyone was reading it and everyone had something to say about it. Steinbeck was attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, believe it or not: both accused him of being a communist, and publishing a book of propaganda. The Associated Farmers of California were particularly vocal in their displeasure, calling Steinbeck’s depiction of the treatment of migrating farm workers as a “pack of lies”. Steinbeck was also revealed to have ripped off the research work of comparatively-unknown writer Sanora Bobb, but that didn’t seem as important to anyone as the fact that he was “trying to make a political point” (that it… sucks to be poor?). Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding
The criticism of Lord Of The Flies began before it even hit the bookstore shelves. More than 20 publishers passed on Golding’s nightmare-fuel story about shipwrecked children turning to savages (I can’t imagine why). One called it “rubbish and dull, pointless,”. Even when he finally found a publisher willing to take a punt on it, they sold only a few thousand copies before it went out of print. The New Yorker called it “completely unpleasant”. How it went from the bargain bin to a Nobel Prize winner assigned reading in every English-speaking classroom around the world is beyond me. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.
Keeping Up With The Penguins operates on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation. This land was never ceded or sold. Our First Nations communities have the oldest continuing storytelling tradition in the world, and custodianship of the land always was, always will be, theirs.
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