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. What a boss!
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
There’s no shortage of books out there that promise to change the way you think… in a very sanitary, self-help-y, put-post-its-on-the-mirror kind of way. I tend to steer clear of them. The best books for changing the way you think aren’t the ones that set out to do just that; rather, they present to you a different way of thinking about some aspect of the world, and your own thinking takes you the rest of the way. These books can be from any genre, as you’ll see from this list of 32 books that will change the way you think…
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
The Brain That Changes Itself will change the way you think about the way your brain works, what is “ingrained” or inevitable and what can be changed or improved. So, it’s kind of meta, in that regard. We’ve somehow adopted this idea that our brains are “set in stone” by a certain point, or that damage and trauma (physical and mental) can’t be overcome once it is hardwired. Doidge has written this book to show you that our soft, squishy brains remain wonderfully malleable until the day we die, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. Read my full review of The Brain That Changes Itself here.
Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton
Religion For Atheists will change the way you think about the role that religion plays in our lives (or the role it could play, if you are indeed an atheist, as the title assumes), and what we can do with what it teaches us. de Botton encourages you to steer away from “boring” questions like whether God exists or whether there’s a Heaven or a Hell, and instead focus on the actual value of religious practice. He posits that we can benefit from the wisdom and power of religion, honed over thousands of years, without having to have blind belief. Read my full review of Religion For Atheists here.
She Speaks by Yvette Cooper
She Speaks is a collection that will change the way you think about powerful speeches and their capacity to change the world (maybe that’s self-evident for any TED Talk devotee, but still). As Cooper points out in her introduction, most collections of transcribed speeches would have you believe that only wealthy white men are capable of exerting influence from behind a microphone. These forty speeches vary in subject, tone, and purpose, but they are all delivered by women who have changed the world.
Tender Is The Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Tender Is The Flesh will change the way you think about state-sanctioned cruelty, as well as some broader questions around desire and fulfillment. If there were ever a book that would turn you vegan, this would probably be it. Bazterrica imagines a Soylent Green-esque world, where humans are farmed for food. There is nothing unique about the appalling conditions or cruelty to which the “heads” are subjected; we sanction it every time we buy beef or pork. It’s not one for the queasy, but if you can stomach it, you’ll find this book is unforgettable.
The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson
The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck will change the way you think about what you care about and what you put your energy towards. I know, you probably weren’t expecting to find actual self-help books in here, given the way I introduced this list, but I maintain that Manson is so against-the-grain in his approach that it barely counts. This book tears down all the myths we’ve built up for years, around “positive thinking” and “you can have it all”. The fact is, into every life some shit will fall, and we need to reckon with when we should give a fuck and when we needn’t bother.
No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
No Friend But The Mountains will change the way you think about “illegal” immigrants and asylum seekers, and the conditions to which our government subjects them in our name. This is the book to hand to every loud-mouth relative with a “fuck off, we’re full” bumper sticker. At the time of writing, Boochani had been incarcerated for years – all for the “crime” of fleeing his country, where he faced pain of death for his journalism. He bravely and selflessly grants us unfettered and unprecedented access to what it is truly like to be an asylum seeker under the legacy regimes of altogether too many Australian governments.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Big Magic will change the way you think about creativity (bonus points if you listen to the podcast, too!). If you’re hung up on ideas about suffering for your art, or the starving artist dying of tuberculosis in a gutter, then this is the book you need. It’s not just for full-time Professional Creatives(TM), either. Gilbert’s philosophy extends to anyone who can or wants to derive joy from creating, whether that be through writing, visual, art, music, or anything resembling those kinds of endeavours. Her approach is optimistic, but pragmatic – and who couldn’t use a bit of that?
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
The Library Book will change the way you think about libraries, and the role that these vital institutions play in our lives. If you only know Susan Orlean from her awesome drunk tweets, it’ll probably change the way you think about her, too. Fair warning for your friends and loved ones, though: any bibliophile who reads this book will bombard everyone they know with fun facts about books and libraries for a good month while reading it (I made the mistake of taking it along with me on a road trip, eeek!). Read my full review of The Library Book here.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Freakonomics will change the way you think about… well, economics is too obvious, so let’s say human behaviour and the power of statistics. I still remember my high school economics teacher telling us one morning that murder rates tend to spike alongside ice cream sales, and challenging us to find the connection. Does dairy drive the lactose intolerant to violence? Do killers like to reward themselves with a sweet treat after a busy day’s murder? These kinds of ridiculous questions are the ones tackled by Levitt and Dubner. They make economics fun and accessible for even the most disinterested reader.
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls will change the way you think about addiction, addicts, and the people who love them. Portraits of addiction tend to focus on the user, all-too-often romanticised versions of hitting rock bottom and finding the strength and will to stay sober. But what of the people who love them? They’re more than supporting cast, they have lives and dreams and hopes of their own that may be damaged or dashed by the addict they love. Aron draws from a deep well of personal experience in balancing the narrative, telling us just what it’s like to loan your lover forty bucks, knowing just what he intends to do with it…
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A Short History Of Nearly Everything will change the way you think about physics and evolutionary science – it’s not as boring as you might think! With his trademark folksy charm and humour, Bryson will take you from the chemistry of the Big Bang right through to what made the earliest humans walk upright. Sure, some of the content is a little dated now (is Pluto still a planet?), but for a general primer on how and why the universe exists, as well as just about everything in it, you can’t go past this popular science gem. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.
The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
The Great Pretender will change the way you think about psychology, psychiatry, and the scientific method. How can we distinguish sanity from insanity? It’s a personal question for Cahalan, who was destined for a psychiatric institution before a doctor corrected her misdiagnosis and saved her life. In this book, she takes a closer look at the one experimental study that changed psychology and psychiatry forever, when professor David Rosenhan sent ostensibly sane researchers into institutions undercover, to see whether the doctors really could discern madness. But did his results really show what we thought we saw? Apparently not…
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Outliers will change the way you think about success and what it takes to get there. Gladwell takes a look at the best and the brightest, the tops in their field, and asks: what makes them any different to the rest of us hum-drum Joe Blows? Without talking over your head, he’ll explain to you the fallacy of assuming ingrained traits in the highly successful, and encourage you instead to look at the foundations they built upon. Maybe this book won’t make you a millionaire, but it’ll at least help you understand how millionaires got there.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Okay, this one might be a bit of a stretch, because you can’t read it in isolation, but: taken together with the careful analysis surrounding its release and subsequent controversy, American Dirt will change the way you think about the need for #OwnVoices stories and the need for diversity and representation in publishing, all the way up and all the way down. Cummins said in her afterword that she “wished someone browner than her would write this book”. The fact is, plenty of people browner than her did write this book, and better. So, why weren’t they picked for Oprah’s book club?
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime And Punishment will change the way you think about “dull” and “dreary” Russian literature. I came to this book absolutely dreading it. I assumed it was going to be bleak, and wordy, and a real slog to get through. Didn’t I get a good kick up the arse when I discovered that it is actually hilarious and a ripping page-turner?! Don’t be alarmed if you read this one and find yourself rooting for – not to mention relating to – an actual axe murderer. There’s probably a broader lesson to be learned here, not judging a book by its cover maybe, but I reckon if it encourages you to give more Russian literature a go, that’s good enough. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend will change the way you think about female friendships, especially life-long ones. Prior to reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, beginning with this (book one), I’d assumed I just wasn’t particularly good at female friendships. That competitive edge, that ebb and flow of feeling and closeness… It turns out, I’m not the only one. These struggles are beautifully captured and rendered on the page through Elenna and Lila, best friends from childhood, though forced together (and apart) through circumstance moreso than any kindred spirit. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four will change the way you think about government power and resistance. My father bought me a copy when I was thirteen years old, and it was a true awakening. It’s difficult to talk about this now without sounding like you’re at the extreme of one or the other -wings, or a nut-bar conspiracy theorist with a tin-foil hat ready to go. The fact remains, however, that surveillance is a genuine threat to freedom, and truth can be manipulated. Orwell foresaw so many of today’s dangers, decades ago, and each time you read this book you’ll find in it new wisdom as to how to resist.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed will change the way you think about social media and our perceptions of “right” and “wrong” (bonus points if you watch his TED talk). Public shaming has become a near-daily occurrence, especially on Twitter. Sometimes, the recipients are lucky, in that their faux pas does the rounds for a day or two, then dies down. Others – like Justine, the woman who Tweeted about contracting AIDS in Africa – have their lives ruined, and their misstep follows them forever. Ronson has tracked down many victims of these worldwide pile-ons, and what he found will make you think twice before hitting retweet.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give will change the way you think about Black Lives Matter protests, the role of the police in our communities, and your convictions about “what you would do” in someone else’s shoes. As the protagonist, Starr, says herself: “I’ve Tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down. Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.” It’s impossible to know what you’ll do in the face of racially-motivated violence, but this book will prompt you to think about it at least, and put you in someone else’s shoes. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House will change the way you think about domestic abuse, and – in a slightly more meta way – change the way you think about memoirs. Machado draws on all manner of literary traditions (including, notably, the Choose Your Own Adventure novel) to depict her experience of surviving an abusive partner. She puts to bed the stereotype of the battered woman cowering in the corner as her drunk husband raises his fists. There are far too few books out there about domestic abuse in queer relationships, which makes this one all the more important and timely. It is a truly innovative and riveting read.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper
The Arsonist will change the way you think about guilt, innocence, and culpability. Even if you’re not Australian, and don’t recall the horror of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, you’ll find in these pages a breathtaking interrogation of how we determine that someone has committed a crime, and what happens to them as a result. I picked up this book assuming it would be a straight up-and-down true crime story about Brendan Sokaluk dropping a few lit cigarettes; instead, I came out of it with scary questions about who, why, and even whether. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air will change the way you think about living and dying. Our cultural perception of doctors – especially in the wake of the global pandemic – is that they are untouchable superheroes, capable of saving anyone and everyone. This heart-wrenching memoir reveals that they are all too human, and thus vulnerable to the same tragedies that befall us all. Kalanithi was an idealistic young neurosurgeon when he learned that he had stage IV lung cancer. In writing this book, he set out to answer the big questions: what makes life worth living? How much of a life is enough?
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
Good Talk will change the way you think about microagressions and uncomfortable conversations. By presenting her memoir as a graphic novel, with moments of charm and humour, Jacob is able to draw you in before walloping you with the reality. It starts off with a child’s innocent questions about Michael Jackson’s skin tone, and stretches all the way to the federal politics of race through the conversations we have with one another. This book will make you think more carefully about what you say, and why, and how it might affect others in the context of a world that already gives them plenty of reason to fear. Read my full review of Good Talk here.
She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
She Said will change the way you think about the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein downfall. If you think you know the story from the grabs you saw on the news, reading this book will prove you wrong. Kantor and Twohey are the New York Times journalists who worked tirelessly for months on end to outmaneuver Weinstein and his team, in order to bring you the unimpeachable story of his crimes. The lengths to which he – and subsequently other men in power – went to hide the truth are truly astonishing, and must be read to be believed.
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl will change the way you think about sex and gender fluidity. The titular character, Paul, is (among other things) a shapeshifter, capable of presenting themselves to the world any way they choose. This magical realism merges seamlessly with the politics, queer theory, and throbbing ’90s soundtrack. Sure, it’s perhaps not part of the trans-lit canon in the strictest sense, but it’s the book I’m most inclined to push into the hands of readers who want to challenge their view of the way we police bodies and gender.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will change the way you think about the Jazz Age, “gold diggers”, and the ways women can wield power. I won’t blame you if you didn’t even realise this was a book before it was a Marilyn Monroe film (I didn’t, until I read it!). Forget about stinkin’ Great Gatsby: this is the definitive American novel of the Jazz Age, complete with glitter and glamour and wealth and wooing. Loos plays with dialect, giving her protagonist – Lorelai Lee – a distinct and unique voice through her diaries. Despite her small-town upbringing, and her limited opportunities for education and personal advancement, Lorelai finds her way and you’ll be as enamoured with her as her suitors. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens will change the way you think about the evolution of us, the homo sapiens. Billed as a “brief history of humankind”, this book explains the conflation of historical and biological factors that have developed our concept of what it means to be human. Just one hundred thousand years ago, there were six different species of human wandering around on this planet of ours: what happened to the rest of them? Why did we survive? You don’t need to take my word for it: Harari’s book has been recommended to us by Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, among many, many others.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Convenience Store Woman will change the way you think about conformity and the pursuit of true happiness. Set in Tokyo, the main character faces all of the pressures of living in contemporary Japanese society. She is expected to marry, bear children, leave behind her beloved job as a convenience store attendant, but no one in her life seems to realise or care that she’s happy with her life just as it is. This book is short, sharp, and searing in its insight. You might be able to knock it over in an afternoon, but it will stay with you for far, far longer. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such A Fun Age will change the way you think about “good intentions” and white guilt. If you’ve ever written off someone’s racist word or deed with the excuse that they “meant well”, this book will give you a lot to think about. The white people in this novel almost universally mean well, but they fall short in truly understanding their role in racist social structures. What’s more, when their shortcomings are pointed out to them, they put the burden of their guilt and discordant shame on others. A really provocative and timely read, packaged as a book you might take to the beach.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
The Weekend will change the way you think about the lived experience of older women (it’s not just shopping and bingo, you know). Most books portray these characters as frail and pitiable, preoccupied with their own mortality and lost youth. Wood presents a very different view, one of women with vitality and desires and ambitions, which far more accurately represents the older women I have been lucky enough to know. This is a brilliant Australian novel about friendships, memory, and connection, with characters that are as dynamic as they are multi-dimensional.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance will change the way you think about… everything, kinda? Through the narrative of a motorcycle road trip shared by father and son, this book veers into very philosophical realms. How do we reconcile science and religion? How do we reckon with our own failings, and our own capacity? How do we live, and how could we live better? Pirsig doesn’t pull any punches.
As an only child, pretty much everything I know about sharing a life with brothers or sisters has been drawn from fiction books about siblings. It started with Famous Five books when I was a kid, and it continues on to this day. I prefer fiction books about siblings that show the good, the bad, and the ugly – sharing parents ain’t all beer and skittles, I know that much. Here’s a list of books that I reckon fit the bill…
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I never miss a chance to plug We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I’ve made it my life’s mission to get more people to read this book. Luckily, today I don’t even have to do any convoluted backwards engineering to make it fit the theme of this list! Unfortunately, though, it’s a little tricky for me to explain exactly why it makes the cut, as there’s a HUGE sibling-related spoiler about 70 pages in… Suffice to say, this book will change the way you think about sibling relationships, and the nature of personhood, altogether. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
How far would you go to save your sibling? That’s the question at the heart of My Sister, The Serial Killer. Even though the premise is a bit preposterous – a woman compelled to help her sister hide the bodies after she dispatches unsuitable boyfriends – there’s an emotional core to this book that will resonate with everyone who’s ever been called upon to sacrifice. At the end of the day, sibling or otherwise, we all have someone we’d call to help us drag a body across the floor… don’t we? Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
There are few writers as iconic as Jane Austen, and few families as iconic as the Bennets, as immortalised in her beloved novel Pride And Prejudice. Even though everyone (it seems) comes for the marriage plot, the relationships between the five sisters are really the heart of this story. It’s Lizzie’s advice that leads Jane to play coy with Bingley, after all, which in turn leads to his doubting her affection. It’s Lydia’s scandal that gives Darcy the opportunity to ride in on his white horse, and shows Wickham for the scoundrel that he is. Face it: P&P just wouldn’t work without the complex relationships that evolve between five daughters under one roof, and the men who try to woo them. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half made one heck of a splash when it was first published earlier this year, and we’re still feeling the ripples today. It’s a brilliant premise: twin sisters, identical, brought up in a Southern black community, who go on to lead very different lives. One passes as white, keeping her heritage a secret from even her (white) husband, while the other claims her black identity, for better and for worse. This is an intriguing way to examine race and racial justice, but like other contemporary fiction books on this subject (An American Marriage comes to mind), it does so without coming across as a thinly veiled argument – it’s a truly emotive, complex story.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Few fiction books about siblings have had the enduring cross-generational appeal of Little Women. I think it’s because just about every woman can identify strongly with at least one of the sisters. Are you Meg, the responsible one? Jo, the head-strong creative? Beth, the kind and gentle? Or Amy, the beautiful and determined? C’mon, if you’ve read this classic, you know which one you are (I’m a Jo, through-and-through). By crafting multiple characters so engaging and relatable, Alcott conquered new ground in the All American Girl trope and won our minds; making them sisters was how she won our hearts. Read my full review of Little Women here.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Is there anything more intoxicating than enigmatic, beautiful, unattainable sisters? Not for the boys who worshipped them in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, and tell their story in chorus. The Lisbon girls are raised in sweet ’70s suburbia, and are shielded from the world by their Catholic parents. Mr and Mrs Lisbon soon discover that no parental love, protection, or permissiveness can save their daughters from themselves. One by one, their daughters are lost to them, and even decades later no one can be entirely sure why. This is one of the darker fiction books about siblings, but one that is seared into the memory of everyone who reads it.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
If your sibling asked you to donate a kidney, you would, wouldn’t you? Well, what if you knew you were born specifically for that purpose? The quandaries of family obligation, and the ethics of “designer babies” or “saviour siblings”, are explored in the perennially popular My Sister’s Keeper. Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald sues her parents for medical emancipation, citing her right to refuse to undergo dangerous and invasive surgery against her will. But her elder sister, Kate, has acute promyelocytic leukemia, and will likely die if Anna succeeds. Are we our sisters’ keepers? This question continues to divide readers, even now!
Queer literature has been around as long as there’s been literature. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Going all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, there have been stories shared about queer love, life, and loss. Sometimes, those stories had to be masked inside other narratives or told allegorically, but I think we’ve reached the point now where it’s no longer controversial to have openly LGBTQ books on the shelves (whether you identify as being part of the community or not). I’ve featured some great LGBTQ books on Keeping Up With The Penguins in the past, but never rounded up a list of recommendations all in one place, so here you have it: 10 great LGBTQ books you should read (if you haven’t already).
Psst: I’m assuming that you’re all au fait with the acronym now because it’s fairly common, but just in case you’re not familiar, I’ll spell it out here. LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer or Questioning. A lot of people and organisations use a longer form, LGBTIQA+, which includes Intersex, Asexual, and a “+” to acknowledge those who don’t identify with any of these particular labels. I’ve chosen to use the shorter form here, purely because it’s what the majority of people use when they search for queer literature on this site and I wanted them to be able to find what they’re looking for.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
Sorry to start on a bummer note, but I think Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is often overlooked in lists of LGBTQ books, and I wanted to redress the balance straight away (he’s better known for his other works, like Goodbye To Berlin). This is a short but heart-wrenching book, a day in the life of a man grieving the loss of his partner. Today, we’d call him a widower, but back then, in the ’60s, their relationship was only socially “understood” and not legally recognised. As such, he must present to the world as “a single man”, and try to hide his bereavement. It’s incredibly sad, of course, but the dark humour had me cackling with laughter all the way through, too. Read my full review of A Single Man here.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In The Dream House is a recent release; it came out earlier this year, and the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail were kind enough to send me a copy for review. This book is not only destined to become a permanent fixture of the queer literature canon, but it completely revolutionised my idea of what a “memoir” could be. Machado explores, in exquisite detail, a formative – and abusive – love affair she had with someone she refers to only as “the woman in the Dream House”. There has been comparatively very little attention – literary or otherwise – paid to domestic violence in queer relationships, but that doesn’t stop Machado from tackling this vital issue from every possible angle.
Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
I’ll be honest: Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl probably isn’t one for beginners. It’s deeply weird, it’s really offbeat, and if you’re new to reading LGBTQ books, it might completely confuse you. That said, if you think you’re ready to take it on, I really recommend that you do. It’s smutty, it’s raw, it’s intense: Lawlor isn’t here to play, people! The titular Paul is a shapeshifter, with the ability to change their appearance at will (to male/masculine, or female/feminine, or anywhere in between). It’s a rollicking romp, an adventure through clusterfuck that is our contemporary understanding of the gender binary and sexuality, but also a fascinating historical piece in the way that it captures the queer “scene” of the ’90s.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
People who read a lot of LGBTQ books are probably rolling their eyes at me right now, and I don’t (entirely) blame them. Naming The Argonauts in a list of must-read LGBTQ books is about as cliche as naming The Great Gatsby in a list of must-read American literature. BUT, in my defense, cliches are cliches for a reason, folks: more often than not, they’re alarmingly apt. This book is a love story, of sorts, a memoir of Nelson’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge, but it’s also an exploration of gender identity, queer theory, and the modern family unit. It is fresh, it is fierce, it is dripping with desire and determination to break down barriers.
Bodies Of Men by Nigel Featherstone
I’ve talked before about how I find historical fiction set in and around WWII to be pretty tired, but Bodies Of Men is a fresh take that I can really get behind. Two Australian soldiers find themselves drawn together by fate and circumstance, again and again, and ultimately what unfolds is a story about intimacy, loyalty, and how we define masculinity. For a historical fiction book, it sure as shit has a LOT to say about the contemporary era, and how we “remember” stories (or don’t).
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Oh, this book! This self-deprecating, charming, delight of a book! Less is the story of Arthur Less, a has-been writer who bemoans the fact that he never sits next to anyone on a plane that has ever heard of his books and that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old”. In an attempt to avoid the awkwardness of his ex-lover’s wedding to a much younger beau, he decides to accept every invitation he receives for every half-baked literary event around the world. Yes, he’s a love-lorn sad-sack and that should be annoying, but it’s actually delightful and endearing and hilarious and – above all – relatable. I defy anyone (gay or straight) to read this book and not fall head-over-heels in love with its protagonist. Read my full review of Less here.
The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter
It wouldn’t be a list of LGBTQ books without some poetry, right? Even if you’re not normally “into” poetry, I can guarantee you that The Monkey’s Mask will still knock your socks off. It’s a verse novel – a story told in a book-length series of poems – about a private investigator who becomes embroiled in a case of murder, mystery, and betrayal. As if that weren’t enough, there’s lots of hot sex and passionate conflict to keep you interested the whole way through. Some poems were so clever that they literally took my breath away. Still need convincing? The Monkey’s Mask was the best-selling book of poetry in Australia since WWII upon its release – that social proof should count for something!
Acute Misfortune by Erik Jensen
Erik Jensen might not be a mainstream “household name”, but he’s kind of a God in the Australian literary scene. Not only is he an award-winning writer, but he founded The Saturday Paper and he’s editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media. I was drawn to Acute Misfortune when I heard Jensen interviewed on the now-sadly-defunct Saturday Night Safran program; I was absolutely riveted by his story, and knew I had to get my hands on his book. He was invited to write the biography of contemporary Australian artist Adam Cullen. What followed was a four-year relationship of unbelievable intensity (Cullen literally shot Jensen at one point – sorry to spoil that particular point, but I just had to prove my point). Sure, you might come out of a voyeuristic interest in the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but you’ll stay for the tenderness and brutality of this claustrophobic partnership.
Reckoning by Magda Szubanski
Long before she came out during the Australian marriage equality campaign, Magda Szubanski was a queer icon. Her character Sharon Strzlecki – the sports-obsessed, accident-prone, unlucky-in-love second-best-friend – spoke to the heart of many an awkward, anxious, and questioning fan. In her autobiography, Reckoning, Szubanski doesn’t just reckon with her sexuality: she also comes to grips with her father’s former career as a spy, the intergenerational effects of trauma, and doing so in the public eye. Plus, if you don’t follow her on Twitter already, you really should.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple is a story of hardship, yes, but also incredible resilience – which may be why it’s been so universally adopted by a community that has both in spades. Alice Walker was, herself, a bisexual woman of colour, making this a watershed #ownvoices novel and an icon of the LGBTQ books canon immediately upon release. The story unfolds through a series of letters to God, written by Celie, a young black woman in the American South of the early 1900s. Already, that’s a tough situation, but she faces horrific abuse at the hands of her father, and later her husband (whom she was not at all inclined to marry). The turning point comes when they take in Shug, a blues singer to whom Celie feels an intense, ineffable attraction… Read my full review of The Color Purple here.
What LGBTQ books would YOU recommend? Add to the list in the comments below!
Every booklover I know has some secret shame. Whether it’s a classic they’ve never read, or a “bad” book they love, there’s something that they hope their fellow booklovers never discover. Well, no more! Inspired by the radical vulnerability exhibited by the My Favorite Murder gals in their memoir Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, I’m going to put a bookish twist on a game from another one of my most-beloved podcasts, The Guilty Feminist. The host, Deborah Frances-White, starts every show with what she calls “exfoliation of shame”, declaring “I’m a feminist, but…” and confessing her sins. Here are my ten bookish confessions…
I’m a booklover, but… I hated The Great Gatsby
I’m starting off with an easy one, one I feel very little shame about at all, really: I really hated The Great Gatsby. I know, I know, it’s a “beautiful” story of the destructive power of the American dream… but it stank. The supposed quality of the writing (which, yeah, was okay) didn’t make up for the nonsense story. I suppose I might’ve liked it more if it hadn’t always been lauded as the “great American novel” or the “definitive story of the Jazz Age”. It is neither. It’s the story of a wealthy guy exploiting his privilege to stalk his married neighbour, and the narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Pffft! Hate it. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
I’m a booklover, but… Mr Rochester is one of my problematic faves.
I loved Jane Eyre. Charlotte is definitely my favourite of the Brontës. The only thing is, her romantic lead – Mr Rochester – is problematic, to say the least. He exploits his position of power over his young governess in ways that would definitely see him called out on social media in a post-#metoo world. He’s a racist git who locks his Creole wife in the attic, because she had the audacity to get a bit cranky with him. I know all of this. And, yet, I can’t help but feel my heart go all aflutter when he and Jane get their happy ending. I’m not even a romantic, I swear! There’s just something about the two of them, and seeing such an earnest heroine finally get the love she’s been hoping for… I try to comfort myself with the fact that at least his wife extracted her revenge, setting a fire that left him severely wounded. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.
I’m a booklover, but… I almost never listen to audiobooks.
I’m constantly espousing the benefits of audiobooks. I will shout down anyone who tries to say that listening to an audiobook isn’t “really” reading. I think that they’re an incredible, accessible resource, especially for folks with low vision or other disabilities that make traditional reading formats difficult. You could say I’m a strong advocate, to put it mildly. And yet, I never seem to actually get around to reading them myself! I have the app on my phone, I’m all set up, but there are just SO MANY GREAT PODCASTS to keep up with, all my listening time is used up on them. I know I’m only hurting myself, in the long run, and missing out on some great reading experiences. I’m actually thinking of joining one of those audiobook challenges, to give me the boot up the bum I clearly need… (if there’s one you can recommend, please drop it in the comments below!)
I’m a booklover, but… I’m really skeptical about self-published books.
Okay, now we’re getting into the real stuff. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that I get sent all types of books from all types of authors, including self-published ones. I’m lucky in that most of the self-published books I’ve been sent have been great! But *deep breath* I’ve also been sent some shockers, and I’ve encountered some self-published authors who are real dickheads. I don’t want to let a few bad apples spoil the barrel, but unfortunately they’ve made me super-skeptical, and I rarely pursue self-published books because of it. I know there are plenty of booklovers who love (even prefer) self-published books, and would say that I’m a snob or an elitist for being so selective with them – I promise, I’m not. I’ve just been burned before, and I can’t help that it makes me a little skittish.
I’m a booklover, but… I own books I’ll probably never read.
First, this is a simple matter of quantity: at last count, there were well over three four hundred unread books on my shelves. I acquire at least a few more each week, and I very rarely part with books. Even if I read a book a day for years (which, given how chunky some of them are, seems like a pipe dream), I still wouldn’t get through them all. Then, there’s the matter of mood and taste. Keeping Up With The Penguins has really opened up my world when it comes to reading, and I’m far more game to try something new than I would have been before I started… but there are still some books I doubt I’ll ever be in the mood to pluck from my shelves. Many of them were gifts, or unsolicited review copies, or books I bought without really thinking it through. Why keep them, then? All kinds of reasons, but mostly “just in case”.
I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I recommend books I don’t like, or have never read.
HOLD YOUR ROTTEN TOMATOES! I know this is pretty much the cardinal sin for a book blogger, but hear me out. I would never “fake” recommend a book in a review here on the blog. When I call a book Recommended on Keeping Up With The Penguins, you can be damn sure that I’ve read it, loved it, and want to press it into your hands. I’m talking about those personal one-on-one recommendations, where a friend says “Hey, can you recommend a book for me/my lover/my cat-sitter?”. I always ask what they have in mind, or if they can tell me some books they’ve loved in the past, and use that to guide my recommendation. Sometimes – I stress, only sometimes – their answers lead me to think of books that, even though I didn’t love them personally, would probably really suit them. Or, I think of a book I’ve heard a lot about that sounds like the kind of thing they’d enjoy, even though I’ve not yet read it yet. So, really, it’s a good thing, right? Instead of forcing on them only books that I really love for myself, I’m taking their tastes and preferences into account. Right? Right?
I’m a booklover, but… I just didn’t “get” Mrs Dalloway.
I’m pretty sure this one makes me both a bad booklover and a bad feminist. I really tried with Mrs Dalloway, I did. I’ve loved some of Virginia Woolf’s other writing, and I really thought I’d get a lot out of her (arguably) most famous novel. But I just didn’t “get” it! It was so hard to follow! I had to re-read every sentence three times, and even then, it all just leaked through, like the book turned my brain into a sieve. I think I actually *gulp* preferred Ulysses, the notoriously unreadable book to which Woolf was responding. I’m open to trying Mrs D again in the future, maybe I’ll get more out of it the second time round, but for now, I’d rather just re-watch The Hours. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.
I’m a booklover, but… I find it really hard to DNF a book (any book, even one I hate).
For the uninitiated, to “DNF” means to abandon a book without finishing it – it’s a “did not finish”. I feel like every other booklover in the world has told me that it’s great to DNF a book, that it frees you up to read something you enjoy, that life’s too short to waste on books that won’t fulfill you. The thing is, I’m a dirty completionist at heart; when I start something, I feel compelled to finish it. That’s why I suffered through to the end of those dreadful self-published efforts I mentioned earlier, and books like The Great Gatsby, American Sniper, and others I really didn’t like. Maybe it’s foolishly optimistic of me, like there’s a small part of me that hopes it’ll turn around or magically get better… but, whatever the case, at least you can be confident that every book I review here, I have read from cover to cover.
I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I like the movie better than the book.
It’s rare that I watch film or TV adaptations of books. In fact, I don’t really watch all that many films or TV shows at all, so if I do happen to watch one based on a book, it’s usually just a happy coincidence. That said, sometimes I actually prefer the movie to the book (and yes, I heard you gasp out loud just now). I certainly enjoyed the HBO series of Game Of Thrones way more than I enjoyed the book version. Same goes for the HBO take on Fahrenheit 451 (which I actually reviewed here on the blog, by the way). I love the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s so much that I’ve sworn to myself I’ll never read the original Capote novella on which it is based, just in case it ruins it for me. I know the general wisdom is “don’t judge a book by its movie”, and normally the screen versions fall short, but there are exceptions.
I’m a booklover, but… I really judge people who don’t use bookmarks, or otherwise damage their books.
Look, I’m not saying they’re going to hell or anything, but seriously! I think the world would be a better place if no one ever dog-eared a book or cracked a spine ever again. And I don’t judge them that harshly (I mean, I married one such monster – and I only occasionally shame him by sharing photos of books he’s destroyed on my Instagram). I’m more open to the idea of marginalia, where the defacement of a book actually serves the purpose of engaging with the text, or writing inscriptions in gifts to loved ones (always fun and heartwarming to find those in a secondhand book), but otherwise just… don’t. Get a bookmark, and/or a book sleeve, and show your books some goddamn respect. Sheesh!
Now come on, don’t leave me hanging, here! Share your bookish confessions in the comments below, and we can all exfoliate our shame together…
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