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Ulysses – James Joyce

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I thought I’d ever read 109 well-known books and publish a review of each and every one on a blog of my own creation, I would’ve said I seriously doubted it. If you’d told me the hundred-and-ninth book would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, I would’ve straight-up laughed in your face. This is the book that has scared and intimidated me more than any other, on any shelf in all the world. I’d heard that it was practically unreadable for the recreational bookworm, best left to the ivory-tower types, so I figured it was Not For Me. That’s why I left it ’til last. It sat on my to-be-read shelf for so long that the pages literally gathered cobwebs. But guess what, Keeper Upperers? “Last” finally came. It’s time to review Ulysses.

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I want to say a couple of things right at the outset: firstly, thank you for all of your encouragement and tips on my Bloomsday Instagram post last year. I referred back to it before I began, and your support made all the difference! I also got lots of background information and guidance as I read from the Ulysses Guide. Unfortunately, it was still a work in progress at the time, so I could only follow it up to about the half-way point, then I had to switch to another online guide that wasn’t quite as good. Still, it served me well, and I highly recommend it!

Publication History

Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, one of “a large family described by his father as ‘sixteen or seventeen children'”, according to the author bio. It should come as no surprise, then, that Joyce was deeply Irish, and his books are steeped in that literary tradition. Reading some Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and John McGahern first was a good idea, a way of easing myself into this way of seeing the world and writing about it.

Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, and had the early chapters ready to go by the end of 1917 (yes, he was a slow writer, among other things). He offered them to Harriet Shaw Weaver, then editor of The Egotist, thinking that she might want to serialise them as she had done with A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. She was happy to do so, but she couldn’t find a printer willing to do the job. Ulysses, by the standards of the day, was so smutty that any printer or publisher who touched it risked imprisonment.

Joyce convinced an American paper to print the chapters in 1918, but he was immediately subjected to extensive legal action for doing so. The US publishers were fined, and further installments were suppressed for a long time. It was a long row to hoe, but eventually Ulysses was published in full by Sylvia Beach, of the ever-popular Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co, in 1922. There have been at least eighteen editions published since then, and each one has introduced new errors and variations. The first alone was said to contain up to two thousand errors, but it is still widely considered to be the “most accurate” to Joyce’s authorial intent. The publication history of Ulysses is long and complex, but for the most salient parts, I highly recommend this episode of the podcast Annotated from Book Riot.

Ulysses is now generally considered to be one of the (if not, the) most important works of modernist literature. (For beginners: “modernism” was a post-WWI literary movement that tried to rebel against traditional forms of creative expression and representation – I’m sorry, I can’t be any more specific than that, because academics are still arguing over what constitutes a “modernist” book). When readers call it one of the greatest books in history, they usually refer to a few key things: Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique, the structure, the experimental prose, the puns and parodies, the allusions, and the rich characterisation. Yes, Ulysses is a hot mix of very literary stuff.

One thing I wish I’d known before I started is that most editions don’t mark the sections or “episodes” clearly. I don’t quite understand why, and it means it’s a little tricky to read Ulysses alongside an external guide, given that there are no markers to make sure you start/stop in the equivalent spots. So, if you’re going to pick up a copy, make sure you’ve got one that’s marked up clearly, if you need it, or an annotated edition with the reference text built-in.

Being able to follow the structure matters. Joyce very deliberately split the book into eighteen episodes, across three “books” or sections, in a way that roughly corresponds with the 24 episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. And that’s just the start of the parallels with the classic poem: Ulysses is, among other things, pretty much a direct adaptation, mapping the journey of Odysseus onto a day in the life of a man living in Dublin.

Plot Summary

(I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can, but I won’t blame you if you skip. ahead to the end for my final verdict…)

The story begins at 8AM on 16 June 1904, when Stephen Dedalus wakes up (yes, we don’t begin with the protagonist, but if that’s enough to irk you, you’re in for a rough ride – strap in). Stephen’s come back to Ireland after some time abroad, to be with his mother when she passed away. He now lives in Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan (an ambitious, blasphemous medical student), and Haines (a well-meaning Brit). Mulligan has been talking shit about Stephen’s dead Mum, so things are a bit tense in the share-house. They all chat and snipe at one another over breakfast, and perform the morning ablutions. Mulligan hits Stephen up for a loan, causing Stephen to throw a tanty. He says he won’t come home tonight, as Mulligan – “the usurper” – has taken over the tower. He has a flair for the dramatic, ol’ Stephen, and he storms out.

He heads over to a school in Dalkey, where he teaches a class, but he doesn’t have a real good time doing it. When he goes to pick up his pay cheque, the headmaster lectures him about not pissing it all away. He then asks Stephen for a favour (seriously! these people!), to get a letter published in the local paper. Stephen’s all “yeah, okay”, and leaves to catch his tram.

Here’s where we first encounter some real Ulysses weirdness: Stephen starts monologuing about all kinds of weird shit, to no one in particular. He decides he can’t be bothered dropping by his aunt’s place like he’d planned, he picks his nose, he writes some poetry. In the end, he gives up, and finds a nice rock to sit on and has a good mope (he can’t go home, after his tantrum – besides, Mulligan has the keys).

These three episodes make up the first “section”. After reading them, I was thinking: hey, Ulysses doesn’t seem so bad! Even with some funky punctuation and grammatical choices, I could still follow the dialogue and the movements of the characters. The third episode, the monologue-y one, read more like poetry than prose, but it wasn’t as impenetrable as I was expecting. I managed to take in at least some of it (not the bits that were in French), so I was feeling confident. Full steam ahead!

In the fourth episode, the day starts again, at 8AM (yep, Ulysses is very non-linear, but at least we stay within a single day for the most part). This time, we see the story from Leopold Bloom’s perspective – finally, our protagonist emerges! He talks to his cat, buys a kidney from the butcher, fries it up and eats it for breakfast (the kidney, not the cat). He also makes tea and toast for his wife, all the while musing about how they’re both having affairs. Molly – the wife – gets a bad rap in a lot of the criticism of this book, but I’m going to say here and now that she’s my girl. I love her. She calls Leopold “Poldy”, which I thought was just fucking adorable (especially after I learned from the reading guide that this was Joyce’s way of showing us how she “delionises” her husband, reminding him who’s boss). I liked Poldy, too, even though he was a bit of a perv – his episodes were, generally speaking, a lot more readable than Stephen’s. Anyway, after a bit of a chat with the missus, Leopold gets dressed and heads off to a funeral.

The next thirty pages or so are very fragmentary and kind of disjointed. Each paragraph is preceded by a news headline, which my guide said “simultaneously interrupted and framed the prose”. Um, okay? I did manage to piece together that Leopold is 38 years old, works as a newspaper canvasser, and after the funeral he heads over to place an advertisement for the House Of Keys Tea Shop in the Evening Telegraph. There’s a bit of wheeling and dealing, then he’s sent off in search of an image to use for the ad. Throughout these professional and social encounters, people treat poor Leopold pretty badly – they’ll flat out ignore him, bully him, and speak carelessly in front of him. A lot of it seems to have to do with the fact that he’s Jewish (yikes).

Leopold goes from the newspaper office down to Grafton Street, the posh shopping district, and stops for a light lunch at Davy Byrne’s Pub. His mind wanders, so we wander with it: he goes from thinking about how much it stinks that Catholics can’t use contraception (forcing them to have large families, which keeps them in poverty), to thinking about how Molly’s probably going to be meeting her lover at 4PM. It’s only 1PM by this point, but Poldy’s trying not to watch the clock. He runs into an ex-girlfriend as he leaves the pub, and he muses on how smooth he is with women (told you he’s a perv!). Then, when he heads to the library to get the image for the ad logo, he spots Molly’s lover – Boylan, we’ll talk more about him soon – and looks the other way to avoid him.

Joyce then switches back to Stephen’s POV at this point: he’s delivering a lecture on Hamlet in the library, which was pretty much just an excuse for Joyce to show off how many Shakespeare references he could cram into every page. Leopold drops in briefly, looking for his logo thing. When all is said and doneth, Stephen and Buck Mulligan head down to the pub. The animosity from the morning show-down still simmers, but Buck knows Stephen has just been paid, so he’ll be good to shout a few beers.

The next episode is written as a series of vignettes and – if I understood them correctly – they all take place at the exact same time, in different parts of Dublin. Kind of like taking a panoramic photo, then looking at it inch by inch. The most notable ones include Leopold buying Molly. a book (a good, smutty one), and Boylan being infuriatingly charming, a real dapper rogue.

Once we slide back into a narrative (or what passes for a narrative in Joyce’s writing, anyway), things start to turn all musical and lyrical. There’s a lot of onomatopoeia, refrains, funny syntax. Leopold is back in the pub (he’s Irish!), flirting with some barmaids, when Boylan walks in. This causes Leopold to check the time, and he notices it’s 4PM – which means Boylan is late for his bonk appointment with Molly (awkward!). Bloom concludes: “Too late. She longed to go. That’s why. Woman. As easy stop the sea. Yes: all is lost.”

Next, we shift perspective (again!), this time to an anonymous working-class Dubliner who tells stories to “earn” his drinks. Sounds like a good gig if you can get it, sign me up! This episode bounces around a lot, and gets interrupted countless times – just like (you guessed it!) stories told in a pub. No shame in getting a bit lost in this part, I know I did! Basically, through this storyteller (drunk and unreliable as he may be), we see Leopold turn down the offer of a drink, because he knows he can’t afford to stand his round, and get into an argument with an Irish nationalist. It seems there’s a lot of rumours about Leopold around town, and he’s none too popular (which explains why everyone acts so shittily towards him). Unfortunately, this is where all the really dark anti-Semitism rears its head, and my heart really broke for the poor man. He leaves, under the guise of going to look for his friend, who (of course) shows up moments later, looking for Leopold in turn. Everyone talks shit about Leopold after he leaves. When he doubles back around, he and his mate finally get together and take off, just as another argument erupts.

Later, Leopold decides to have a bit of a sit-down at the beach, and just so happens to pick a spot near three teenage girls. Gerty is the “beautiful one”, and she is described in intimate detail. She has her eye on Leopold too, apparently (ugh). And here’s where our darling Poldy hits peak perv: he has a wank, right there on the beach, while everyone (including Gerty) watches some fireworks. Ick!

Let’s not linger on that nasty visual. Shortly thereafter, Leopold realises that his watch has stopped, and he starts to wonder whether Molly has finished bonking Boylan yet. He lays down to have a little nap before heading home.

Now, here’s where Joyce starts really showing off: the next episode is pretty much unintelligible. This was the first time while reading Ulysses that I truly had no idea what the fuck was going on, even with my trusty reading guide. If not for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and my dirty completionist heart, I would’ve given up right here. Example:

““For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtrending lutulent reality or on the contrary anyone so is there illuminated as to not perceive that as no nature’s boon can contend against the bounty of increase so it behoves ever most just citizen to become the exhortatory and admonisher of his semblables and to tremble lest what had in the past been by the nation excellently commenced might be in the future not with similar excellence accomplished if an inverecund habit shall have gradually traduced the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs to that tither of profundity that that one was audacious excessively who would have the hardihood to rise affirming that no more odious offence can for anyone be than to oblivious neglect to consign that evangel simultaneously command and promise which on all mortals with prophecy of abundance or with diminution’s menace that exalted of reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined?”

Page 381 (I know they’re english words, but what the fuck does this “sentence” even mean???)

Apparently, throughout this episode, Joyce was trying to represent “the gestation of the English language”, by replicating and parodying the prose styles of different time periods in chronological order. Ugh, whatever.

Moving on: Leopold checks in on a woman who’s been in labour for a horrifyingly long time. He sits around and chats with a group of doctors and medical students, all of whom appear to be drinking on the job. Buck Mulligan and his mate show up looking for condoms. All these men get down to discussing birth and motherhood, every fathomable aspect of it (finally, a group of men offer their perspective! just what we’ve been missing!). Once the woman finally drops her shorty, they all head down to the pub to party on.

The next bit is written and formatted like a script, with stage directions, character labels on the dialogue, etc., but it depicts very little actual action. Most of it takes place in subconscious drunken hallucinations, and as far as trips go, this is a bad one. Leopold dreams of getting yelled at by his parents, interrogated by police, put on trial for being (among other things) a cuckold, leading his own country (Bloomusalem), being a woman, and giving birth to eight children. When he comes back to earth for a second, he follows Stephen and his mate into a brothel, then the hallucinations start a new, getting dirtier and more outlandish. Joyce deliberately blurs the lines between what is “really” happening and what is only happening in Pervy Poldy’s head, so – once again – no shame if you get a bit lost and confused. Oh, and Stephen has a few hallucinations of his own, and they all criss-cross over one another – it’s all very strange.

Leopold eventually comes to and straightens himself up, but Stephen is still drunk as all heck (give-all-my-money-to-strangers-on-the-street drunk). Leopold hustles him away and tries to sober him up. Stephen can’t go home (he’s still got beef with Buck Mulligan, and no keys!), so they stop at a diner to get some coffee and food into him. They meet a chatty sailor, and try not to indulge in gossip about how the innkeeper was involved in a local murder. But then, somehow, the conversation shifts to England and Ireland and Christianity and Judaism – all very safe topics among drunk Irishmen, and it all goes super well! Leopold ends up having to literally drag Stephen out of the bar and half-carry him home. What a day, I tell ya…

But Joyce isn’t done! He switches things up again, this time narrating an entire episode in the form of a Q&A. There are 309 questions, all with detailed answers that depict the action. Stephen sobers up enough to carry on a conversation about music and politics, as he and Leopold walk the rest of the way home. Leopold has to break into his own house because he forgot to put his keys in his funeral pants. Inside, they find a bunch of Boylan’s stuff lying around (awkward!), and this makes Leopold understandably cranky. He and Stephen sit down, drink some cocoa, swap stories, and argue about religion. Leopold offers to let Stephen stay the night, but he politely declines. They do a wee together in the front yard, Stephen heads off, and Leopold climbs into bed with Molly. He gives her a kiss on the bum, and she starts thinking about the fact that they haven’t had sex in ten years (no wonder she’s taken a lover, get yours girl!).

Now, here we go, the big crescendo: Ulysses ends with an episode consisting of eight whopping great long un-punctuated sentences, all from Molly’s perspective. She thinks about their respective affairs, and their courtship. She worries about money, wishing she had more of it so she could buy pretty things. She reminisces about her youth in Gibraltar, old friends and so forth. She decides she likes love letters, and hates “silly” girl singers. She thinks about her daughter. She gets her period. She decides it’d be great if we overthrew the patriarchy and let women run things (preach!). All these thoughts lead her back to her memory of Leopold’s proposal, and her enthusiastic response – thus, the immortal closing line, “yes I said yes I will Yes”.


Ulysses was probably never going to be my favourite book of all time. I don’t think that’ll be any great shock to anyone. But, I must say… it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Like, nowhere near as bad. It’s got a hell of a reputation, and sure, some parts drove me up the wall, but I got so much more out of it than I would have dreamed possible.

Joyce’s writing doesn’t read like the writing that most contemporary recreational readers expect and enjoy, but don’t confuse unfamiliarity with dislike. I don’t think we talk enough about what Joyce was trying to do: represent the natural flow of human thought, feeling, mood, and memory. He did such a good job of it that the rhythm of Ulysses feels natural, like letting yourself drift along the currents of a river.

Even for all his faults, I really liked Leopold. He was relatable in a way that most writers hope their flawed protagonists will be. But the real star of the show, the one who won my heart, was Molly. I can’t think of any of Joyce’s contemporaries who crafted a female character as wonderfully nuanced and intriguing as she. Of course, her complexity and authenticity meant that most early (*cough*sexist*cough*) readers thought she was a “whore”. Their word, not mine. She was uneducated, opinionated, sexual – all things that women weren’t (and still aren’t) “allowed” to be. My favourite characters in literature are almost always women who do things they “shouldn’t”, so Molly had it in the bag.

What surprised me most of all was that I *whispers* liked it better than Mrs Dalloway. I’m deeply concerned that this makes me a bad feminist, but so be it. Virginia Woolf famously declined to publish Ulysses through her own Hogarth Press, saying that “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, and Mrs Dalloway was written largely in an attempt to one-up Joyce and show him how it should be done. I’d really like to re-visit them both in a few years, and see if my opinion changes over time. But, for now, Joyce is the winner in my own personal Ulysses v Dalloway show-down.

I’m not going to call Ulysses a recommended read here on the blog. It’s not for everyone, and I respect that. I’m not even sure that I’d say I “liked” it. What I would say is that, once again, it proved to me that a book’s reputation means sweet fuck-all. Crime And Punishment was a pleasant surprise in much the same way. If you’ve decided not to try and read Ulysses on the basis that everyone says it’s unreadable, maybe you should reconsider. It might be better than you think, it might not, but the only way to know for sure is to give it a go. Be sure to hurry back here and tell me what you think… 😉

Keeper Upperers, you might be worried that finishing my original reading list with Ulysses means that this will be the end of my book reviews – it most certainly is not! I’ve cooked up a whole new reading list, and I’ll be reviewing them one-by-one each week as I have done for the last 109. Take a sneak peek at what’s to come here, and thank you for all of your continued support.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Ulysses:

  • “Good condition except there was a bad smell to the book” – Tiffany Thai
  • “did not read bored in 10 sec” – David G Johnston
  • “This book does not need a review.” – KB
  • “For psychological masochists only.” – Robert Belilovsky
  • “the worst book you’ll ever read, if you ever finish it.” – Amazon Customer
  • “ulysses sucks. hence, this book sucks.” – Amaon Customer
  • “Nice guide to Dublin. A bit brief.” – Charmaine Babineau
  • “I enjoyed this. It’s long but if it starts to drag you can skip over parts and not lose much. It’s more a narrative of life than, say, a detective story where you can’t miss a trick. The best part is the ending soliloquy by the girl, ten pages without a punctuation mark. I’d buy the book for that.
    yes I will yes” – William J. Fallon
  • “Could not get through it. Forced myself to stay with it, but gave up after 50 pagers or so. I would rather read a tech manual, at least that has a purpose.” – Mags Dad
  • “Dear lord, this nonsense is supposed to be great literature? Simply horrid. A book should be able to communicate the clarity of its prose and not try to impress others by obscurity.

    This sucker has no clothes.
    There, I said it.” – Kevin M. Fries

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

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

Anita Loos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of the books you should definitely read before you die. I particularly encourage you to give it a go if you think that I must be wrong and Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. And, I’m sure I don’t need to say this to the booklovers, but just in case you need a reminder: don’t judge the book by its movie.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

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

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

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

Ever-mindful of the gender imbalance on my reading list, I decided it was high time for a feminist writer to teach me some shit. My next selection was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Mrs Dalloway here.
(These are affiliate links, so I’ll earn a small commission – which will help me buy the flowers myself.)

The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, I suppose!

Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan of his notoriously unreadable tome. Writing Mrs Dalloway was really Woolf’s way of saying “Look, mate, here’s how you do it right!”. She mirrors the format of Ulysses, with both books taking place over the course of a single day, but in this case it’s a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging Pommy socialite.

Having read the two introductions to Mrs Dalloway (two! plus a foreword!), going in I knew I could safely assume that (1) Virginia Woolf was brilliant, (2) Virginia Woolf was bonkers, and (3) this was going to be a really heavy read.

And holy smokes – “heavy” might not be the right word, but it sure was something. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around the inside of Woolf’s skull. It’s a “stream of consciousness” suitable for white water rafting. Woolf has us saying hello to a childhood frien-NOPE, we’re admiring a tree-NO WAIT, we’re reminiscing about a past lov-HANG ON, we’re buying flowers… on and on it goes.

I had no idea what the fuck was happening, not for a single moment. I re-read every sentence three times, and still couldn’t follow it at all. What I did manage to absorb I can summarise here in the form of a few Mrs Dalloway Fast Facts:

  • Mrs D is throwing a party
  • She feels old
  • She likes reading memoirs
  • She’s maybe a little bit queer…

That’s it.

There’s some peripheral guy she walks by in the park, Septimus. He’s shell shocked out the wazoo and it’s making his foreign wife miserable. He decides he loves life but hates doctors, so he throws himself out the window. Not a great end, all told. Septimus and Mrs D are the two primary characters, but they never actually meet – his suicide just features in the party gossip she hears later.

Yeah, it’s that kind of book – the kind that makes me feel extremely stupid. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was Missing The Point the whole time I was reading it. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld, but harder: you keep waiting for there to be a point or a plot, but none materialises. There’s no literal interpretation, it’s just layer upon layer of metaphor until you’re buried so deep you can’t breathe.

And the best part is: according to the critiques I read online afterwards, Mrs Dalloway is a “much more accessible” version of Ulysses. So that’s the story of how Ulysses got demoted to the very bottom of my to-be-read list 😉

If I had to say what I got out Mrs Dalloway, it would probably boil down to the following: everyone is bonkers. You shouldn’t get married out of obligation. London is pretty. Women are brave to write letters without the help of a man. Teenaged daughters are annoying. Young women who wear party dresses that stop above the ankle will get called slutty behind their backs. Hosting a party is hard, especially when your girl crush shows up unexpectedly and the talk of the night is the shell-shocked veteran who topped himself. So, I guess, do with all of that what you will…

I would recommend Mrs Dalloway, wholeheartedly, to anyone who is far, far smarter than me.

You can read my review of Michael Cunningham’s 1991 adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, called The Hours, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Mrs Dalloway:

  • “This book was drier than a popcorn fart. What happened in it? It’s hard to say. A veteran killed himself and a bunch of stuffy old English people had a party. That’s the whole story in a nutshell…” – Harmony
  • “Self loathing non sense.” – Richard Gianelli
  • “Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” – Allen

The Big List Of Author Birthdays

Literally what it says on the tin: a big list of author birthdays. I tracked down the birthday of every author I could think of, and put them all into one big list, just for you! If you can think of any author of note I’ve missed, let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can add them in.

The Big List Of Author Birthdays - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Author Birthdays in January

1 January: E.M. Forster – Read my full review of A Passage To India here.
1 January: J.D. Salinger – Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.

2 January: Andre Aciman – Read my full review of Call Me By Your Name here.

3 January: J.R.R. Tolkien

7 January: Zora Neale Hurston – Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

9 January: Simone de Beauvoir – Read my full review of She Came To Stay here.
9 January: Philippa Gregory – Read my full review of The Other Boleyn Girl here.
9 January: Wilbur Smith
9 January: Judith Krantz

11 January: Jasper Fforde
11 January: Diana Gabaldon – Read my full review of Outlander here.

12 January: Jack London – Read my full review of The Call Of The Wild here.
12 January: Haruki Murakami
12 January: Julia Quinn – Read my full review of Bridgerton here.

17 January: Anne Brontë – Read my full review of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall here.
17 January: Emily M. Danforth – Read my full review of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post here.

19 January: Edgar Allan Poe

21 January: Casey McQuiston – Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

22 January: Stephen Graham Jones

24 January: Edith Wharton – Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

25 January: Stephen Chbosky Read my full review of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower here.
25 January: Virginia Woolf – Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

27 January: Lewis Carroll – Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.

29 January: Olga Tokarczuk
29 January: Anton Chekhov

30 January: Susannah Cahalan – Read my full review of The Great Pretender here.

31 January: Norman Mailer

Author Birthdays in February

2 February: James Joyce – Read my full review of Ulysses here.
2 February: Ayn Rand

7 February: Charles Dickens – Read my full review of David Copperfield here.
7 February: Karen Joy Fowler – Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

8 February: Rachel Cusk – Read my full review of Second Place here.
8 February: John Grisham

9 February: J.M. Coetzee
9 February: Alice Walker – Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

12 February: Judy Blume

13 February: Samantha Irby – Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.

18 February: Toni Morrison – Read my full review of Beloved here.

19 February: Jonathan Lethem – Read my full review of The Arrest here.
19 February: Carson McCullers
19 February: Amy Tan – Read my full review of The Joy Luck Club here.
19 February: Jeff Kinney

20 February: Sally Rooney – Read my full review of Normal People here.

21 February: W.H. Auden
21 February: David Foster Wallace
21 February: Anaïs Nin – Read my full review of Delta of Venus here.

23 February: Bernard Cornwell

24 February: Gillian Flynn – Read my full review of Gone Girl here.
24 February: Yuval Noah Harari
24 February: Rainbow Rowell – Read my full review of Fangirl here.

25 February: Anthony Burgess – Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.

26 February: Victor Hugo

27 February: Joshilyn Jackson – Read my full review of Mother May I here.
27 February: John Steinbeck – Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Author Birthdays in March

2 March: Dr Seuss

4 March: Khaled Hosseini – Read my full review of The Kite Runner here.

5 March: Sarah J. Maas

6 March: Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

7 March: Anna Burns – Read my full review of Milkman here.
7 March: Bret Easton Ellis – Read my full review of American Psycho here.
7 March: E.L. James

8 March: Jeffrey Eugenides – Read my full review of Middlesex here.
8 March: Kenneth Grahame – Read my full review of The Wind In The WIllows here.

9 March: Lindy West

11 March: Douglas Adams – Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

12 March: Jack Kerouac – Read my full review of On The Road here.
12 March: Maggie Nelson – Read my full review of The Argonauts here.
12 March: Ruth Ozeki – Read my full review of A Tale For The Time Being here.

19 March: Philip Roth – Read my full review of Portnoy’s Complaint here.

21 March: Oyinkan Braithwaite – Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

22 March: James Patterson

25 March: Gloria Steinem

26 March: Patrick Süskind

Author Birthdays in April

1 April: Jesmyn Ward

2 April: Sofie Laguna – Read my full review of Infinite Splendours here.

4 April: Maya Angelou – Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.
4 April: Delia Owens

5 April: Caitlin Moran

6 April: Leigh Bardugo

8 April: Barbara Kingsolver – Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.

12 April: Jon Krakauer

13 April: Samuel Beckett – Read my full review of Waiting For Godot here.
13 April: Michel Faber – Read my full review of Under The Skin here.

15 April: Jeffrey Archer
15 April: Henry James – Read my full review of The Golden Bowl here.

17 April: Nick Hornby

21 April: Charlotte Brontë – Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

22 April: Janet Evanovich
22 April: Vladimir Nabokov

23 April: William Shakespeare
23 April: Trent Dalton

24 April: Sue Grafton

26 April: Anita Loos – Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

27 April: Patricia Lockwood – Read my full review of No One Is Talking About This here.

28 April: Harper Lee – Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.
28 April: Terry Pratchett – Read my full review of The Colour Of Magic here.
**Psst: if you’re scrolling through this list to look for which authors share your birthday, I don’t blame you. This is mine!

Author Birthdays in May

1 May: Joseph Heller – Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

5 May: Hank Green

7 May: Peter Carey – Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

8 May: Thomas Pynchon

9 May: Richard Adams – Read my full review of Watership Down here.

10 May: Jon Ronson

13 May: Daphne du Maurier – Read my full review of Rebecca here.

18 May: Lionel Shriver – Read my full review of We Need To Talk About Kevin here.

19 May: Nora Ephron
19 May: Jodi Picoult – Read my full review of My Sister’s Keeper here.

20 May: Ottessa Moshfegh – Read my full review of Lapvona here.

22 May: Arthur Conan Doyle – Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

25 May: Robert Ludlam

27 May: Maggie O’Farrell – Read my full review of Instructions For A Heatwave here.

28 May: Muriel Barbery – Read my full review of The Elegance Of The Hedgehog here.
28 May: Patrick White
28 May: Bernardine Evaristo – Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.
28 May: Ian Fleming

31 May: Walt Whitman

Author Birthdays in June

1 June: Colleen McCullough

2 June: Fredrik Backman – Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.
2 June: Thomas Hardy

5 June: Ken Follett
5 June: Rick Riordan

6 June: VC Andrews – Read my full review of Flowers In The Attic here.
6 June: Alexander Pushkin

7 June: Elizabeth Bowen – Read my full review of The Heat Of The Day here.
7 June: Adam Silvera

8 June: Nino Haratischvili – Read my full review of The Eighth Life here.

9 June: Paul Beatty – Read my full review of The Sellout here.
9 June: Patricia Cornwell

12 June: Adam Kay

13 June: Audrey Niffenegger – Read my full review of The Time Traveler’s Wife here.

14 June: Harriet Beecher Stowe

16 June: Joyce Carol Oates
16 June: Andy Weir – Read my full review of The Martian here.
16 June: Evie Wyld – Read my full review of The Bass Rock here.

18 June: Richard Powers

19 June: Salman Rushdie

21 June: Ian McEwan – Read my full review of Atonement here.
21 June: Jean-Paul Sartre

22 June: Dan Brown

23 June: Markus Zusak – Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

25 June: George Orwell
25 June: Eric Carle

28 June: Kate Atkinson – Read my full review of Life After Life here.
28 June: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

29 June: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

Author Birthdays in July

2 July: Hermann Hesse

3 July: Franz Kafka
3 July: Carmen Maria Machado – Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.
3 July: Matt Haig – Read my full review of The Midnight Library here.

4 July: Nathaniel Hawthorne – Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

6 July: Jonas Jonasson – Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.
6 July: Hilary Mantel

8 July: Janet Malcolm
8 July: Erin Morgenstern – Read my full review of The Starless Sea here.

9 July: Dean Koontz
9 July: Barbara Cartland

10 July: Saul Bellow – Read my full review of The Adventures Of Augie March here.

15 July: Clive Cussler

18 July: Elizabeth Gilbert
18 July: William Makepeace Thackeray – Read my full review of Vanity Fair here.
18 July: Hunter S. Thompson

20 July: Cormac McCarthy

21 July: Ernest Hemingway – Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

23 July: Raymond Chandler – Read my full review of The Big Sleep here.
23 July: Lauren Groff

24 July: Alexandre Dumas
24 July: Madeline Miller

26 July: Aldous Huxley – Read my full review of Brave New World here.

28 July: Beatrix Potter

30 July: Emily Brontë – Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.
30 July: Celeste Ng – Read my full review of Little Fires Everywhere here.

Author Birthdays in August

1 August: Herman Melville – Read my full review of Moby Dick here.

2 August: Isabel Allende

4 August: Tim Winton

5 August: David Baldacci

10 August: Suzanne Collins – Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

11 August: Enid Blyton

12 August: Ann M. Martin

14 August: Danielle Steel
14 August: Sayaka Murata – Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

17 August: Jonathan Franzen

19 August: Samuel Richardson – Read my full review of Clarissa here.
19 August: Veronica Roth – Read my full review of Divergent here.

21 August: Alexander Chee

22 August: Ray Bradbury – Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

23 August: Curtis Sittenfeld – Read my full review of Rodham here.

24 August: Paulo Coelho – Read my full review of The Alchemist here.
24 August: Stephen Fry – Read my full review of Mythos here.
24 August: John Green – Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.
24 August: Alexander McCall-Smith
24 August: Jean Rhys
24 August: Ali Smith
24 August: Jorge Luis Borges

25 August: Martin Amis – Read my full review of Money here.

26 August: Christopher Isherwood – Read my full review of A Single Man here.

27 August: Jeanette Winterson – Read my full review of Frankissstein here.

29 August: Mieko Kawakami – Read my full review of Breasts And Eggs here.

30 August: Mary Shelley – Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

31 August: Dolly Alderton

Author Birthdays in September

3 September: Malcolm Gladwell
3 September: Jenny Han – Read my full review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before here.

4 September: Alex Michaelides – Read my full review of The Silent Patient here.

6 September: Robert M. Pirsig

7 September: Jennifer Egan

9 September: Leo Tolstoy – Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.

10 September: Alison Bechdel

11 September: D.H. Lawrence – Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

13 September: Roald Dahl
13 September: E. Lockhart – Read my full review of We Were Liars here.

14 September: Geraldine Brooks

15 September: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
15 September: Agatha Christie – Read my full review of And Then There Were None here.

17 September: Cheryl Strayed – Read my full review of Wild here.

19 September: William Golding – Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

20 September: George R.R. Martin – Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.
20 September: Angie Thomas – Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.
20 September: Hanya Yanagihara – Read my full review of A Little Life here.

21 September: Stephen King – Read my full review of Misery here.
21 September: H.G. Wells

24 September: F. Scott Fitzgerald – Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

25 September: William Faulkner – Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.
25 September: Kristin Hannah
25 September: bell hooks

26 September: Mark Haddon
26 September: T.S. Eliot

29 September: Miguel de Cervantes – Read my full review of Don Quixote here.
29 September: Elizabeth Gaskell

30 September: Truman Capote – Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

Author Birthdays in October

2 October: Tara Moss

4 October: Rupi Kaur
4 October: Anne Rice
4 October: Jackie Collins

7 October: Sherman Alexie – Read my full review of The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian here.
7 October: Rachel Kushner

8 October: R.L. Stine

10 October: Nora Roberts

14 October: Miles Franklin – Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.
14 October: Kate Grenville

15 October: Italo Calvino – Read my full review of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler here.
15 October: Roxane Gay – Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.

16 October: Oscar Wilde – Read my full review of The Picture Of Dorian Gray here.

17 October: Arthur Miller

19 October: Tracy Chevalier

21 October: Carrie Fisher – Read my full review of The Princess Diarist here.
21 October: Ursula K Le Guin

22 October: Doris Lessing – Read my full review of The Golden Notebook here.
22 October: Ann Rule – Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.
22 October: Debbie Macomber

23 October: Augusten Burroughs
23 October: Michael Crichton

24 October: Emma Donoghue – Read my full review of Room here.
24 October: Amor Towles

25 October: Zadie Smith

26 October: Taffy Brodesser-Akner – Read my full review of Fleishman Is In Trouble here.

27 October: Anthony Doerr – Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.
27 October: Sylvia Plath – Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

28 October: Evelyn Waugh – Read my full review of Scoop here.

29 October: Lee Child

31 October: Susan Orlean – Read my full review of The Library Book here.

Author Birthdays in November

1 November: Susanna Clarke – Read my full review of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell here.

6 November: Michael Cunningham – Read my full review of The Hours here.
6 November: Colson Whitehead – Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.

7 November: Albert Camus
7 November: Helen Garner – Read my full review of Monkey Grip here.

8 November: Kazuo Ishiguro – Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.
8 November: Julie Murphy
8 November: Bram Stoker – Read my full review of Dracula here.

10 November: Caroline Kepnes
10 November: Neil Gaiman

11 November: Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.
11 November: Min Jin Lee
11 November: Kurt Vonnegut

13 November: Robert Louis Stevenson – Read my full review of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde here.

15 November: Liane Moriarty – Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.

16 November: José Saramago – Read my full review of Death At Intervals here.

17 November: Becky Albertalli

18 November: Margaret Atwood – Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

20 November: Don DeLillo

21 November: Andrew Sean Greer – Read my full review of Less here.

22 November: George Eliot – Read my full review of Middlemarch here.
22 November: Lisa Genova – Read my full review of Still Alice here.

24 November: Marlon James
24 November: Arundhati Roy

26 November: James Dashner – Read my full review of The Maze Runner here.

28 November: Richard Osman

29 November: Louisa May Alcott – Read my full review of Little Women here.
29 November: C.S. Lewis

30 November: Tayari Jones – Read my full review of An American Marriage here.
30 November: David Nicholls
30 November: Jonathan Swift – Read my full review of Gulliver’s Travels here.
30 November: Mark Twain – Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.

Author Birthdays in December

2 December: Ann Patchett
2 December: George Saunders

5 December: Joan Didion

8 December: Bill Bryson – Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

10 December: Emily Dickinson

11 December: Colleen Hoover

14 December: Shirley Jackson – Read my full review of The Lottery And Other Stories here.

15 December: Edna O’Brien – Read my full review of Girl here.

16 December: Jane Austen – Read my full review of Pride & Prejudice here.
16 December: Philip K. Dick – Read my full review of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? here.

19 December: Brandon Sanderson

20 December: Alain de Botton – Read my full review of Religion For Atheists here.
20 December: Taylor Jenkins Reid – Read my full review of Daisy Jones And The Six here.

21 December: Benjamin Disraeli – Read my full review of Sybil here.

23 December: Donna Tartt – Read my full review of The Secret History here.

24 December: Mary Higgins Clark
24 December: Stephenie Meyer

26 December: Henry Miller – Read my full review of Tropic Of Cancer here.
26 December: David Sedaris – Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

30 December: Rudyard Kipling – Read my full review of Kim here.

31 December: Nicholas Sparks

10 Books Set In Ireland

Ireland: birthplace of Oscar Wilde, home of Guinness, lush land of no snakes and green shamrocks. While travel is still out of reach for some of us (by some of us, I mean me), there are plenty of books on our shelves that can take us to our dream destinations – and, for me, that’s the Emerald Isle. Here are ten books set in Ireland for a budget-friendly escape.

10 Books Set In Ireland - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
The luck of the Irish will be with you if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase – you’ll be sending some leprechaun gold my way!

Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman - Anna Burns - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Milkman is set in an “unnamed city” – but for anyone who’s paying the slightest bit of attention, it’s obviously Belfast. That’s where Anna Burns herself was raised, and her experiences of the turbulent times of the Troubles inform this intense psychological novel. It’s a story about gossip, silence, violence, and consequences. With this book, Burns actually became the first-ever writer from Northern Ireland to win the Booker Prize, with the judges commending it as “an exploration of the universal experience of societies in crisis.” Read my full review of Milkman here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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

Ulysses has a bit of a reputation – being notoriously difficult to read, for one thing – but if you can grit your teeth (and find a helpful guide to scaffold your reading), it’s well worth it. The story follows Joyce’s self-insert character, Leopold Bloom, and his friends and lovers over the course of a single day of misadventures in Dublin. The book is so beloved as part of the Irish canon that communities celebrate “Bloomsday” on 16 June each year, the anniversary of the day that Joyce depicts. (It was also the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife, so that’s surely worth a pint.) Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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

Sally Rooney is a bit of a millennial wunderkid – “the Salinger of the Snapchat generation”. All of her books are (at least partially) set in Ireland, but the most iconic is definitely Normal People. The story begins in a fictionalised small Irish town in County Sligo, where Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house. What follows between the two teenagers is a lifelong push-pull of will-they-won’t-they frenemies-to-lovers-back-to-frenemies-then-maybe-lovers-again. The plot follows them to Dublin and Trinity College (where Rooney herself, naturally, studied) and back again. I’m sure there will be “Normal People tours” of those areas in the future – if there aren’t already. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Bonus: Read my full review of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, here.

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here - Frances Macken - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know that old saying, “you can’t choose your family”? Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose your friends, either. That’s definitely the case for Katie, who grows up in the small (fictional) Irish town of Glenbruff in You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here. She has no choice but to become friends with the glamorous troublemaker Evelyn, and the wet blanket Maeve. They dream of escaping their small-town life someday, but in the meantime (as the title suggests) they have to make their own fun – and a city girl is coming to shake things up. This is a fantastic exploration of female friendship and coming-of-age against the backdrop of ’90s in the Emerald Isle. Read my full review of You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here here.

The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness - Tana French - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tana French is the reigning queen of detective books set in Ireland. The Likeness is the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, and it’s severely underrated. The concept is just ridiculous enough to work. Cassie Maddox is drawn back into the Dublin Murder Squad to investigate the murder of her doppelganger, a young university student who looks eerily like her. What’s more, it turns out the victim was living under an alias Maddox had used for a previous investigation. Obviously, she has no choice but to go back undercover, this time posing as the dead girl, to see if any of her Dublin housemates will reveal themselves to be the murderer. Isn’t that bonkers? Isn’t it amazing? Read my full review of The Likeness here.

Amongst Women by John McGahern

Amongst Women - John McGahern - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Amongst Women is a slim little unassuming tome, and John McGahern is far from a household name, but this is one of the best books set in Ireland interrogating the impact of the country’s internal conflict on families and domestic life. The patriarch character, Michael Moran, is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. His wife and daughters gather at the family home in Ireland’s rural midlands, hoping to lift Moran’s spirits lest his most recent bout of depression kill him, but it’s far from a happy reunion. Read my full review of Amongst Women here.

Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions For A Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, so technically Instructions For A Heatwave begins in London – but the Riordan family has tended carefully to their Irish roots, and the story drags them back there. Plus, Maggie O’Farrell is a widely beloved Northern Irish author, so I say it counts as one of the best books set in Ireland. Everyone in the Riordan family is hiding a secret: they miss home, their marriages are breaking down, their step-kids hate them, they can’t read… and all of those secrets come to a head when the patriarch of the family disappears. This is a fascinating novel of simmering resentments and emotional claustrophobia, a rich family drama that feels very Irish. Read my full review of Instructions For A Heatwave here.

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing - Eimear McBride - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eimear McBride draws on a rich tradition for books set in Ireland, stream-of-consciousness writing to explore the depths of trauma and psychology (see Ulysses above), in her debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. The rambling story explores a young Irish girl’s family relationships – pushed to the breaking point by her brother’s brain tumour – and her struggle to accept her own sexuality. The New York Times called this book a future classic (among many other complimentary things), and McBride won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction for her efforts.

The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard

The Nothing Man - Catherine Ryan Howard - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Love true crime? Love books-within-books? Looking for books set in Ireland that will get your heart pumping? You need to read The Nothing Man. The title is a moniker given to a serial killer who assaulted and murdered people in their Cork homes. They called him that because the Gardaí had “nothing” on him. Nowadays, though, he goes by Jim, and he’s a faceless security guard at a grocery store. Jim’s about to get the opportunity to relive his criminal hey-day though, because a true crime book has just come out about him – an I’ll Be Gone In The Dark-esque memoir by his only known survivor. Read my full review of The Nothing Man here.

Bonus: Check out more of the thriller books by Irish authors I recommend here.

The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes

The Wild Laughter - Caoilinn Hughes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In 2008, the Celtic Tiger – a period of foreign investment in Ireland that lead to a major property bubble burst – devastated some Irish families while richly rewarding others. That’s the backdrop for The Wild Laughter, a novel by “one of Ireland’s most audacious, nuanced and insightful young writers”. The Black brothers are living on either side of a chasm, with their beloved father dancing along a delicate tightrope between them. This is a “snapshot of a family and a nation suddenly unmoored”, named Book Of The Year in 2020 by the Irish Times, the Irish Sunday Times, the Irish Independent, AND the Sunday Independent. That might make it one of the most-endorsed books set in Ireland in living memory!

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