Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Golden Bowl – Henry James

This is the first time I’ve reviewed two books by the same author back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five… turns out, it wasn’t just a quirk of his storytelling exclusive to The Turn of the Screw. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.

A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She convinces him to marry her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte sure enough it it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, what a cuck!). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James seems to be the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

I ended up having to look up chapter summaries online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems)… but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on my reading list because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

Learn from my mistake: book recommendations from friends aren’t always the gold you’d hope they’d be! Check out the five mistakes you probably make when you’re picking your next read here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on my to-be-read list). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.

The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!

It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

One of James’s more readable passages, from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

Party Going – Henry Green

I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.

Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.

“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”

Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction

There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.

The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.

Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.

There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Party Going:

  • “Short on wit.” – uncle tom
  • “John Updike is one of my favorite writers, but I found reading Henry Green like reading Upstairs, Downstairs in ultra-slow motion.” – J.M. Walker

10 Twisty Thriller Books To Read For Halloween

I was never really THAT into Halloween, for a few reasons. First off, I grew up in Australia, where the idea of dressing up and trick-or-treating is relatively new. Before it took root here, all I knew about Halloween was what I’d gleaned from Babysitters Club books and Mean Girls. Secondly, I’m not one for the supernatural; I don’t believe in spooks, I don’t believe in spooks, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. And third, I’d much rather be curled up with a good book than hand-sewing a costume or traipsing around the streets begging for chocolate… but why should that mean I miss out on all the fun? Here are ten twisty thriller books to read for Halloween (with no witches or werewolves or wraiths).

10 Twisty Thriller Books To Read For Halloween - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Don’t be spooked by the affiliate links! I’ll just earn a small commission (a “treat”, if you will) when you use them to buy a book.

Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller

Notes On A Scandal - Zoe Heller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My opinion might’ve been swayed here for the fact that I saw the fabulous film adaptation (starring Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett) before I discovered it was based on a book… but Notes On A Scandal (also called What Was She Thinking?) totally holds up in both formats. A beautiful, young teacher is busted having an illicit affair with a student. Luckily, her older colleague and self-appointed bestie is on her side, and leaps to her defense. But their friendship is not at all what it seems…

Under The Skin by Michel Faber

Under The Skin - Michel Faber - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Why is a woman cruising the roads of the Scottish highlands picking up hitchhikers? Why does she get them to open up to her, divulging their innermost thoughts and their deepest desires? Clearly she’s up to no good… but what kind? Under The Skin is probably the strangest of the twisty thriller books on this list (some might not call it a thriller at all), but I couldn’t help but include it! It’s one that will linger long after you turn the final page.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

Baby Teeth - Zoje Stage - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What is it that is so inherently creepy about young children? Is it their tiny hands, their needling voices, their fierce (sometimes manipulative) spirits? Normal children are no picnic, but Zoje Stage has created the ultimate villain in Baby Teeth. Seven-year-old Hannah is her Daddy’s little girl, an angel who can do no wrong, but her mother worries their daughter has a (very) dark side. When the battle of the wills between mother and daughter comes to a head, you won’t be able to look away.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone - Felicity McLean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maybe it makes me a philistine, but I’ve got to say I prefer The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone to the classic Australian novel that inspired it. Imagine Picnic At Hanging Rock with the contemporaneity and eeriness of The Virgin Suicides, and you’ll get close to The Vibe of this one. Sisters Ruth, Hannah, and Cordelia vanished in the summer of 1992 – is it a runaway gone wrong, or were they taken? What has become of the girls they left behind? You’ll have to read on to find out.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I'm Thinking Of Ending Things - Iain Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you like your twisty thriller books to err on the side of the literary, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is the one for you. It’s incredible that such an intense psychological suspense novel came from the pen of a debut author. In it, a young woman – despite her misgivings about her relationship – agrees to join her boyfriend on a road-trip to meet his parents. They’ve only been together a few months but, as the title suggests, she’s thinking of ending things. Will she get the chance?

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Chain - Adrian McKinty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As soon as I read the blurb of The Chain, I knew I had to have it. Rachel Klein drops her daughter at the bus stop, just as she does every morning, but this time she gets a phone call from an unknown number. A woman tells her she has abducted Rachel’s daughter, and the only way to get her back (alive) is to pay a ransom, abduct another child herself, and await instructions. Rachel isn’t the first, and it’s up to her whether she’ll be the last. This twisty thriller book will push ethical and moral boundaries you didn’t know you had.

Perfume by Patrick Süskind

Perfume - Patrick Suskind - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll admit, I stumbled across Perfume because of the strangest Venn diagram ever: I’m a booklover who used to work in a perfume store, so I spent a lot of time looking for books about fragrance. This is not what I expected to find, and I’m not sure it’s right to call any of these twisty thriller books a “pleasant surprise”, but… Anyway, this one is about a man in 18th century Paris with one remarkable trait: an impeccable sense of smell. He’s obsessed with capturing scents, and that obsession leads him down a very dark road.

Call Me Evie by J.P. Pomare

Call Me Evie - J.P. Pomare - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the isolated beach town of Maketu, Uncle Jim tells Evie that they’re in hiding, that he’s protecting her from the consequences of something terrible she did back in Melbourne. Only, he isn’t really her uncle, and her name isn’t really Evie. The thing is, Evie can’t remember the truth of what got her here – she only knows that she’s determined to find out. My eyes might have skipped over Call Me Evie on a shelf of twisty thriller books, but I was drawn to it after listening to an amazing interview with the author, J.P. Pomare. He went to great lengths to ensure this book was as realistic and chilling as possible, and the results speak for themselves!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A few months ago, if you’d asked me whether I recommended Gone Girl, I probably would have scoffed and told you it was the basic bitch of twisty thriller books. Reader, consider this me eating my words (which taste, funnily enough, like humble pie). Amy and Nick seem to have the perfect marriage, until the morning of their fifth anniversary. Amy disappears. Did Nick have something to do with it? The police sure think so. But can either of them be trusted to tell the truth about that day, about their lives together? Don’t be fooled by the “big reveal” halfway through: there’s plenty more to come! Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware

The Turn Of The Key - Ruth Ware - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’d seen The Turn Of The Key by Ruth Ware billed as a modern-day Turn Of The Screw. Now, I’m not a Henry James fan (far from it!), but that description drew me in: it’s a story ripe for adaptation! A governess alone with weird children in an isolated house, complete with bitter housekeeper, mysterious caretaker, and unexplained bumps in the night? Yes, please! Don’t worry, I’m not sneaking a creepy paranormal thriller in right at the end: all will be revealed, and it will be banal and terrestrial… but isn’t that the most chilling reveal of all?

Worst Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List

Last week, I shared a wonderful round-up of my best reads from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list… but let’s be real: I know you all come here for my snark. This project has led me to some incredible books that immediately became life-long favourites, but it’s also led me to some real stinkers. It seems only fair that I also share this companion round-up: the absolute worst of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.

The Worst Of The Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading List - Text Overlaid on Mosaic Tiles - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Throwing caution to the wind and buying one of these books to read for yourself? If you do it through a link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission – the only upside, as far as I can see 😉

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I think I might be the only person alive who didn’t have to read this book in high-school. I’m not sure how that happened, but it did, which meant I came to The Great Gatsby for Keeping Up With The Penguins with a weight of expectation. It’s the “definitive Jazz Age novel”, a “beautiful” story about the “decline of the American Dream”… hooey! Nick Carraway thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Owning a fancy fast car will come back to bite you in the arse. Blah, blah, blah. I fail to understand why this is a staple on every high-school English syllabus when there are other great books out there that would offer much better insight (and would be way more fun to read, into the bargain). Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent - Veronica Roth - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I think back to Divergent, there are two things I remember (neither of them flattering). The first is that it felt like Veronica Roth just took the idea of the sorting into Houses from Harry Potter, mixed it with the teen girl protagonist who has to save the world from The Hunger Games, and spat out the flimsiest house-of-cards excuse for a dystopia in the history of fiction. The second thing I remember is the single worst sentence I encountered in this entire project: “I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery”. (Or maybe I should say it was the best sentence I encountered, because it made me snort so hard my nose still hurts.) I do not recommend this book, not even for the teenager in your life that’s teetering on the edge of becoming angsty. Read my full review of Divergent here.

The Golden Bowl by Henry James

The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a dirty finisher. A completionist. I hate to put a book down before I’ve turned the final page (and I certainly can’t bring myself to review a book I haven’t finished reading). The Golden Bowl put all that to the test. I can’t recall another instance where I came so close to abandoning a book in this entire project. I hated it! The Turn Of The Screw wasn’t so bad, and as far as plot goes, The Golden Bowl’s is alright (a love quadrangle complete with extramarital affairs and step-parents)… but DAMN, James needed to CALM DOWN. To say that his writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. It was basically impenetrable – I had to resort to looking up chapter summaries online just to figure out what the fuck he was trying to say with ALL THOSE WORDS and ALL THOSE COMMAS. Henry James and I are done. Finished. Kaput. On pure principle, I will never pick up another book of his as long as I live. Read my full review of The Golden Bowl here.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might seem strange that I’m including The Fault In Our Stars here, given that I’ve certainly referenced elsewhere as a book you should read before you die. I stand by that: so many teens have read and fallen in love with this book, I don’t doubt that many of them will end up paramedics, doctors, and palliative care nurses as a result. But let’s be clear: that’s the only reason to read this book, as far as I can tell. I want to have something to talk about with the doctor or nurse that takes care of me in a nursing home someday. As for the book itself? Trite nonsense, transparently designed to try and pull on my heartstrings. The “love interest”, Augustus? He was such a pretentious cockwomble! “Oh, I put cigarettes in my mouth but never light them because it’s a metaphor!” = get in the fucking bin, mate. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

The Call Of The Wild by Jack London

The Call Of The Wild - Jack London - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Whenever I see The Call Of The Wild shelved in the children’s section of any bookstore, I leave immediately. To call this a “children’s book” is the most sick, twisted, fucked-up thing I can imagine. I thought it was going to be the story of a dog who went camping in the woods. Do you know what I got? Dog-napping and death. Seriously! Humans killing dogs. Dogs killing humans. Dogs killing each other. I couldn’t stand it! I don’t care if all the trauma was interspersed with beautiful place writing about the Klondike, I don’t care if Jack London had some grand point to make about humanity and nature: this book was traumatic in the extreme and I would strongly urge any dog-lover (really, any person with a feeling bone and a beating heart in their bodies) to STAY AWAY from it, for their own good. Read my full review of The Call Of The Wild here.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know, as far as 18th century novels go, Gulliver’s Travels wasn’t bad. It was certainly more readable than Robinson Crusoe or The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I could totally get behind some of Swift’s sociopolitical commentary: the ridiculousness of the Lilliputians at war over the correct way to crack an egg was genius. The thing is, I just could not get past what an absolute arsehole Gulliver was to his wife. Seriously! He just keeps gallivanting off on these doomed adventures, leaving her at home alone raising their kids for years at a time, never knowing whether she’ll ever see him again, whether he’s even alive or dead. Then, when he does come home for good, do you know what he does? He tells her she smells (I’m not being facetious, literally her odor was now “offensive” to him), and spends the rest of his life living in the stables, ankle-deep in horse shit. Occasionally, he’ll deign to dine with her, as long as she sits at the other end of the table and doesn’t speak too much. Gulliver is a dickwad, and I care not a dot for his stupid travels, thank you very much. Read my full review of Gulliver’s Travels here.

American Sniper by Chris Kyle

American Sniper - Chris Kyle - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

American Sniper, where to start? Whenever I share my feelings about this book, someone somewhere pops up to smack me down for them. Chris Kyle was a “true patriot”, apparently, and I’m “disrespecting his sacrifice” by calling his book a steaming turd. But you know what? I stand by that description (though it may be a little too kind). It’s not just that it was badly written – it really was, even with two ghost writers on the payroll. It’s that the worldview it espoused was horrific. Kyle was the “most lethal sniper” in the history of the U.S. military, and it would seem that he became that way by developing a sickening obsession with guns and violence from a very early age, and unquestioningly accepting the propaganda of American cultural imperialism. He never once conceded that he was shooting actual human beings in Iraq: they were reduced to “targets”, “bad guys”, “savages”, “motherfuckers”. He actually said, with pride, that he “didn’t shoot everyone holding a Koran – he’d like to, but he didn’t”. I’d shelve this book next to Mein Kampf, and any other manifesto written to inspire hatred. I’m not sure I could even justify recommending it under the guise of “know your enemy”. Read my full review of American Sniper here.

Whew! That was cathartic! What do you reckon – have I been too harsh? Are there any I should give a second chance? Or are there some huge stinkers I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below!

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