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.
The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was (coincidentally, ha!) founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, fuck the haters!
Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan. 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 have been 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…
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.
“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
One of the things that’s been bringing me joy during, y’know, all of this is The To-Read List podcast. Today, I’m drawing inspiration from one of their episodes (which, in turn, was inspired by a Tweet from LitHub). The idea is to come up with a list of authors you’d want to be in lock-down with, or in quarantine with. You might love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but could you really stand living with her 24 hours-a-day for weeks on end? Ernest Hemingway might be brilliant, but what would it be like to share a bathroom with him? I put my thinking cap on and came up with my very own list (technically two, one for living authors a la The To Read List and one for dead authors a la LitHub): my ultimate lock-down author share-house.
Important note: this isn’t about the authors whose work I love the most. I had to scratch a whole bunch of brilliant writers for various reasons: I’d be too nervous to talk in front of Helen Garner, I’d be too intimidated by Sally Rooney (and only a little bit sour that we’re the same age), I figured I’d be cheating if I chose Elena Ferrante so that I could be one of the select few who know her secret identity, and I’d be scared of distracting Carmen Maria Machado or Roxane Gay from writing their next book. This is about the authors I reckon I could live with for an extended period under share-house circumstances.
Living Author Lock-Down Share-House
First thing’s first: I’m going to want someone around who can make me laugh. Someone who can find the funny in the mundane, someone who can make fun without being cruel, someone who will regale me with entertaining anecdotes when the days get too long. I can’t think of anyone who fits the bill better than David Sedaris. Read my full review of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day.
It can’t all be work and no play, though. We’d need someone with some aesthetic sensibilities to brighten up the place – and maybe draw us, just for lols. That’s why I’d call Mira Jacob up to the plate. I never thought of myself as a graphic novel reader until I read Good Talk. I’d happily take all of her dish-washing and laundry duties if she captured our lock-down conversations in return. Read my full review of Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir, Good Talk, here.
Dead Author Lock-Down Share-House
Whenever something crappy happens in my life (and I reckon getting locked down in a share-house during a global pandemic would count), I hear Nora Ephron‘s voice in my head, saying: “Everything’s copy”. I reckon she’d be the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and she’d get us all working on collaborative creative projects to release once regular business resumed.
And, it’s a combo deal: I’d love to have Anita Loos (sans her shit-head husband) in my author lock-down share-house, because I’m sure she and Nora would get along. Sure, I’d probably end up the odd-one-out, watching them write brilliant screenplays while I sipped my wine in the corner, but it’d be worth it to get them in the same room and watch the magic happen. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Speaking of entertainment: I reckon Anaïs Nin would be captivating. She was adventurous, generous, and by all accounts, fun! I mean, anyone willing to write gloriously literary smut on commission has got to be worth talking to. And, if we didn’t get along, I’d feel less guilty about sneaking into her room and reading her diary… (I mean, I’d never do that. Ahem. Probably.) Read my full review of Delta Of Venus here.
And, finally, I’d want George Eliot in the share-house, and I’d want to ask all manner of questions, about writing and politics and life… but the one that’s front-and-center in my mind at the moment is: have we been mis-gendering George all this time? This has come up as a result of the “Reclaim Her Name” project, for which Baileys (the major sponsors of the Women’s Prize) is re-publishing a collection of works they’ve determined were written by women under masculine pseudonyms, including Middlemarch. In the (inevitable) backlash that ensued, I came across a couple of accounts that suggest George might have adopted the name that more accurately reflected their identity, rather than purely bowing to the patriarchal constraints of the time for publishing writers. Essentially, I’d want George to have the opportunity to decide for themselves, with today’s sensibilities and understanding, how they wish to identify. And then I’d start digging for dirt, like the gossip-hound I am deep down, on all their high-falootin’ Victorian friends…
Who would you want in your lock-down author share-house? Living or dead, dream big! Let me know in the comments below.
Exactly what it says on the tin: here are 100 fun facts about books and authors. Enjoy!
Jane Austen had a knack for brewing her own beer. She used molasses to give her brews a sweeter taste.
Thomas Pynchon’s middle name is Ruggles.
Fredrik Backman was a blogger before A Man Called Ove became a bestseller sleeper hit.
451 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t actually the temperature at which paper burns. Bradbury was misinformed when he was choosing a title for Fahrenheit 451; that’s actually the temperature at which paper will combust.
Harper Lee was Truman Capote’s assistant when he was writing In Cold Blood. She was in charge of managing his 8,000 pages of notes, and interviewed townspeople who were too suspicious to tell him anything.
The Netflix adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton is the most-watched series in the platform’s history. Over 82 million households have tuned in.
Suzanne Collins claims she came up with the idea for The Hunger Games when she was channel surfing, flicking between footage of the war in Iraq and reality TV.
Agatha Christie disappeared for nearly two weeks in 1926, after her first husband told her he wanted a divorce. Her car was found abandoned, 15,000 volunteers undertook a manhunt, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle consulted a psychic. She was found in a hotel under an assumed name (borrowed from her husband’s mistress), and never offered any explanation, not even in her autobiography.
Daniel Defoe was terrible with money. He was in-and-out of debtors prison for most of his life, and died while (probably) in hiding from his creditors.
In her youth, Gillian Flynn worked odd jobs, including one where she was required to “dress up as a giant yogurt cone who wore a tuxedo”.
Hans Christian Andersen was a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but the admiration was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but Andersen drastically overstayed his welcome. Upon his departure, Dickens taped up a note in the room that read: “Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”
When Stephen Hawking turned in his first draft of A Brief History Of Time, his publisher gave him some advice. They said that book sales would be halved for every mathematical equation that he included in the manuscript. Hawking went away and removed all equations bar one (E=MC2). The book went on to sell over 25 million copies.
James Joyce wrote with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat. This is likely attributable to his notoriously poor eyesight, for which he had twenty-five surgeries over the course of his life.
After a severe car accident, Stephen King‘s lawyer purchased the vehicle that hit him, “to prevent it from appearing on eBay”. The car was later crushed in a car yard, and King was reportedly disappointed that he didn’t get to smash it himself.
The Little Prince is the most-translated French book in the world, available in over 300 languages.
David Sedaris’s essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, was all set to be adapted for the screen, with a completed script ready for production. Sedaris withdrew the rights after one of his siblings expressed concern about how their family would be portrayed.
Robert Louis Stevenson deliberately left out the definite article (“the”) from his title of Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Most editions now include it, to make the title grammatically correct.
Hanya Yanagihara, her editor, and her agent all expected that A Little Life “would not sell well”. It defied their expectations.
After publishing The Book Thief, Markus Zusak was able to support himself and his family on the royalties alone, for thirteen years. His next novel, Bridge Of Clay, is the only book he has published in his children’s lifetimes.
Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died on the same day, 22 November 1963. Unfortunately, their deaths were overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record for being the most-often rejected book to go on to become a best-seller. Robert M. Pirsig received 121 rejections before a publisher agreed to buy his book.
Edith Wharton’s father’s family was very wealthy and influential. Their surname was Jones, and it is said that this is where we get the saying “to keep up with the Joneses”.
Paulo Coelho wrote The Alchemist in just two weeks. He said he was able to get it down on paper quickly because the book was “already written in his soul”.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a “great admirer of Bob Dylan”, who won the Nobel Prize the year before he did.
Tayari Jones had the idea for An American Marriage when she was eavesdropping on a nearby couple in a shopping mall. She told The Paris Review: “I overheard a young couple arguing in the mall in Atlanta. The woman, who was splendidly dressed, and the man—he looked okay. But she looked great! And she said to him, “You know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he shot back, “This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.” And I was like, You know, I don’t know him, but I know she’s probably right.”
William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks, between midnight and 4AM, while working at a power plant. He said that he did not change a single word of the draft between completion and publication.
Andre Aciman was raised in a multi-lingual household, speaking predominantly French. Family members also spoke Italian, Greek, Ladino (Old Spanish), and Arabic.
The Call Of The Wild was inspired by Jack London’s own extended stay in the Klondike (where, he said, he “found himself”). He was forced to leave when he developed scurvy, as a result of the lack of fresh produce available in the Arctic in winter months.
Despite the anti-war and anti-capitalist themes of Catch-22, Joseph Heller spoke positively of his own time in the army during World War II, and said that he “never had a bad officer” during his time of a bombardier.
J.D. Salinger became a vegetarian after his father tried to pressure him to enter the meat-import business, and he spent a short time working in slaughterhouses in Vienna and Poland.
Protesting the Government of Portugal’s decidedly negative reaction to his book The Gospel Of Jesus Christ, José Saramago left his home country and lived the rest of his life in exile on the Spanish island of Lanzarote.
Anaïs Nin wrote her erotic short stories – published posthumously in the collection Delta Of Venus – for the “personal use” of a “private collector”. The collector paid her a dollar a page, and told her to stick to the pornography, “no analysis, no philosophy”.
John Green foolishly promised to personally sign every pre-ordered copy of The Fault In Our Stars. He ended up having to sign every single copy of the first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received.
Today, Bram Stoker is best known as the author of Dracula, but during his lifetime he was only known as the “personal assistant of actor Sir Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, which Irving owned”. He also (probably) died of syphilis.
Veronica Roth wrote her debut novel, Divergent, while on winter break from her studies at Northwestern. She sold the book before graduation, and film rights sold before the book’s release.
Alice Walker coined the term “womanist”, in 1983. She intended it to mean simply “a black feminist or a feminist of colour”.
V.C. Andrews insisted (even after her death, via a surviving relative) that Flowers In The Attic was based on a true story. She claimed that she developed a crush on her doctor, who – along with his siblings – had been locked away for 6 years to preserve his family’s wealth. This claim has never been verified, and is widely disputed.
George R.R. Martin has said that comic book legend Stan Lee is “the greatest literary influence on [him], even more than Shakespeare or Tolkien”.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford. She adopted the name Toni for her saint – Anthony – at age 12, after converting to Catholicism. Sadly, she came to regret using a pen name. She worried that it made her sound “like a teenager” and it she felt “ruined” by it. Still, her closest friends and family continued to call her Chloe until her death, and the pseudonym allowed her to keep her professional and personal lives separate.
Stephen Chbosky not only wrote but also directed the film adaptation of his young adult novel The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and received a standing ovation.
Anita Loos was Hollywood’s first salaried screenwriter.
Thriller author Paula Hawkins has written romantic comedies under the name Amy Silver.
Though Nora Ephron was “culturally and emotionally Jewish”, she said that she was not religious. While promoting her final film before her death (Julie & Julia, based on Julie Powell’s blog and memoir of the same name), Ephron said “You can never have too much butter – that is my belief. If I have a religion, that’s it.”
Liane Moriarty wrote season two of the mini-series adaptation of her novel Big Little Lies with Meryl Streep in mind specifically for the new character Mary Louise. Streep didn’t even read the script before agreeing to sign on for the role.
Italo Calvino’s mother chose his first name to commemorate his Italian heritage (he was born in Cuba). However, as the family moved back to Italy while Calvino was still quite young, he effectively grew up with the same name as his country, which he thought sounded “belligerently nationalist”.
Douglas Adams claimed that the concept and title of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy were inspired by a bender. He was hitchhiking around Europe and one night, lying drunk in a field (if I had a dollar), he got to thinking about his mate’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe and mused that there should be a version written for the galaxy.
Cormac McCarthy wrote on the same typewriter for over 50 years. It later sold for $250,000.
When Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar was scheduled for demolition, he reportedly tore a urinal from the wall in the men’s room and took it for his own, saying that he had “pissed so much money into it” that it was his by rights.
William Golding’s manuscript of Lord Of The Flies was initially rejected by his eventual publisher, Faber, with their in-house professional reader calling it an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atomic bomb on the colonies and a group of children who land in the jungle near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull. Pointless”.
Australian scientists were such great fans of Andy Weir’s science-fiction novel The Martian that they named a new species of bush tomato after the main character: Solanum watneyi.
Samuel Beckett completed the final edits on his novel Murphy from a Parisian hospital bed. He’d been stabbed after declining an offer of companionship from a notorious French pimp (who went by the street name Prudent). James Joyce paid for Beckett’s medical care.
Despite reaching the peak of international literary fame, Elena Ferrante has remained anonymous for nearly two decades. She has said in (rare) interviews that anonymity is a pre-condition of her work.
Sally Rooney was the star of her university debate club, and was top debater at the European University Debating Championships in 2013.
Jack Kerouac didn’t learn to drive until he was 34 years old, and he never held a formal driver’s license.
Gulliver’s Travels is the most-widely-held book of Irish literature in the world’s libraries.
Ayn Rand dedicated her novel Atlas Shrugged to her husband, and her lover – two different men! In her author bio, she added that her husband (Frank O’Connor) had the values of character she sought in a man, while her lover (Nathaniel Branden) was her “intellectual heir”, an ideal reader with as rational and independent a mind as she could conceive of, whom she met through a fan letter he sent her.
Victor Hugo really struggled with procrastination. While writing The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he had his servants take away all of his clothes so that he wouldn’t be tempted to go out during the day when he was supposed to be working, effectively forcing him to write in the nude.
In an essay, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn admitted to sadistic childhood impulses like “stunning ants and feeding them to spiders”.
Travel writer Bill Bryson has been eligible for British citizenship, but avoided it for most of his life, claiming that he was “too cowardly” to take the citizenship test. When he eventually worked up the courage, he passed.
Jennifer Egan has said that her book A Visit From The Goon Squad was inspired by two main sources: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and HBO’s The Sopranos.
The mathematics textbook that Charles Ludtwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) used in school has survived the intervening years intact. An inscription in the front, written in Latin, translates to: “This book belongs to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson: hands off!”
Neil Gaiman and musician Tori Amos are very close friends; he is godfather to her daughter, and they have referenced each other in their work often.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger Of A Single Story, is one of the top ten most-viewed TED Talks of all time with more than fifteen million views.
James Joyceloved the work of playwright Henrik Ibsen so much, he learned Norwegian in order to send Ibsen a letter in his native tongue.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was named for Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for The Star Spangled Banner.
John Steinbeck wrote a werewolf novel. It’s called Murder At Full Moon, and it has never been published. A copy of the manuscript is held in the archives of the University of Texas. It will enter the public domain in 2043.
A French soldier claimed that a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim saved his life. He had the book in his pocket when he was shot, and said that the bullet stopped “twenty pages from his heart”.
Mark Twain was once the next-door neighbour of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Walt Whitman wrote a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, for the money. He admitted later that he was drunk when he wrote it.
The musical Cabaret is an adaptation of a play called I Am A Camera, which in turn is an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye To Berlin.
Aldous Huxley taught George Orwell’s French class at Eton College in 1917.
Gabriel García Márquez never sold the film rights to One Hundred Years Of Solitude, because “(t)hey would cast someone like Robert Redford and most of us do not have relatives who look like Robert Redford.”
Oscar Wilde’s last words were reportedly about the wallpaper in the room where he was confined to his sick bed, which he hated. He reportedly said something to the effect of “my wallpaper and I are fighting… one or other of us has got to go.”
On the eve of their marriage, Leo Tolstoy gave his wife-to-be his complete and unabridged diaries, detailing his sexual history (including his illegitimate child by a serf on his estate), and insisted she read them.
One of Ali Smith’s part-time jobs prior to writing plays was “lettuce cleaner”.
The iconic 2000 film Coyote Ugly was based on an essay written by Elizabeth Gilbert, about her time working as a bartender at the Coyote Ugly table dancing bar in the East Village. Gilbert married a man she met at that bar, and it was her divorce from him that inspired the memoir for which she is most famous, Eat Pray Love.
Joyce Carol Oates said she trained herself to be a writer by “writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them”.
E.B. White has never revealed his motivation for writing children’s classic Charlotte Web, saying “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze,”.
Stella Gibbons was ostracised from literary circles in her time, mostly because she dared to parody D.H. Lawrence. Virginia Woolf in particular took issue with her, writing to Elizabeth Bowen after Gibbons won a literary prize: “I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”
As he was writing, Kevin Kwan shared an incomplete draft of Crazy Rich Asians with an editor friend, who complained that he had “ruined her Thanksgiving dinner” because she couldn’t put the manuscript down to finish preparing the meal.
To avoid the ire of Soviet censors, Boris Pasternak had to smuggle his manuscript of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to his Italian publisher. He is reported to have quipped “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad,” as he handed it over.
We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Don Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of the character’s early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase is translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”.
Alexander McCall Smith put his significant royalties from his prolific literary career to good use by purchasing a chain of uninhabited islands, the Cairns of Coll. He intends to hold them in trust, to ensure that they are “kept in perpetuity as a sanctuary for wildlife – for birds and seals and all the other creatures to which they are home.”
Zadie Smith’s two younger brothers are both rappers.
bell hooks decided to use the “unconventional” lower case for her pen name to distinguish herself from her great-grandmother (from whom the name is taken) and to emphasis what she considers to be most important (the work, not the writer).
Gone With The Wind sold a million copies in its first year of publication (1936), despite its “unprecedented” high price of $3, and widespread hardship in the wake of the Great Depression.
Yuval Noah Harari does not own a smartphone.
Maya Angelou used a hotel room as her study. She asked management to remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles.
The publication of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil led to an increase of 46% in tourism to Savannah.
Jodi Picoult has written several issues of Wonder Woman.
Diana Gabaldon believes that time travel is possible, and on that basis that the Loch Ness monster could exist: “All you need is a time-portal under Loch Ness, which would occasionally allow a prehistoric creature to pass through it.”
Isabel Allende once had a job translating romance novels from English to Spanish, but she was fired for changing dialogue to make the heroines “sound more intelligent”. She also changed the ending of Cinderella.
When he was ten years old, Amor Towles threw a message in a bottle into the Atlantic Ocean. It was found by Harrison Salisbury, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of the New York Times, who responded. The two of them kept up correspondence for many years.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. This may be where he drew his inspiration for the famed punishment of his protagonist of The Scarlet Letter (to wear a scarlet A, for Adultress, on her chest).
Sometimes, I think we throw around the words “life changing” with regards to books a bit too casually. A book can be brilliant, challenging, wonderful, and enjoyable without necessarily actually changing your life. When I took a look back over all the books I’ve read (as best I can recall), there are only a handful that I can pinpoint as having materially affected the direction of my life, and the choices that I subsequently made. So, today I bring you an honest-to-goodness list of books that changed my life.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the first book my (now) husband ever loaned me. That sounds trite and cliche (almost as trite and cliche as calling Nietzche life-changing), but I promised you honesty and that’s what you’re getting. On the face of it, we didn’t have a lot in common in those early days: he was a bartender, I was working for a bank, he was chronically late, I was always early, he rarely left his neighbourhood, I flew back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for work… and yet, what we always shared was a love of books, and an inclination to talk about them in depth. It all began with his loaning me this tattered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Sometimes, I wonder whether things might’ve worked out differently if he’d handed me another book – The Road, perhaps, or his beloved John Berryman collection. But this was the one he pressed into my hands, and so it went. To this day, we still share book recommendations and argue happily for hours about the merits of a given work of literature. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In My Skin by Kate Holden
Looking further back in my reading archive, there’s this memoir: In My Skin by Kate Holden. I must’ve read and re-read and re-read this book dozens of times in my late teens. I remember sprawling out across the foam mattress on my rickety bed in my teeny-tiny dorm room in my final year of boarding school, and devouring it cover to cover. Holden wrote of a world that was recognisable, but still so completely foreign to my own that it fascinated me: she was a heroin addict, a sex worker, and lived a life of instability and risk that I could hardly fathom. And yet, she and I shared so much in common: moodiness, determination, a love of literature… I credit this book, and Holden’s incredible evocative writing, with my emotional development and my capacity to feel deep empathy for people who live lives different to my own. I think it also helped form my interest in activism, particularly in areas of feminism and sex work.
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Okay, technically Hills Like White Elephants isn’t a book, it’s a short story (ironically, I didn’t really like Hemingway’s novel-length work and it made zero impression on me, but that’s for another time). Still, its impact on me was so significant that I include it here. I read Hills Like White Elephants in an elective course in the first year of my undergraduate degree. We read dozens of short stories for that class – Gogol’s The Overcoat, of course, and Virginia Woolf’s The Mark On The Wall – but none moved, challenged, or changed me more than this one. It’s tough to pinpoint why. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first time I recall realising the levels and layers that can exist in literature, how stories change upon close inspection, how intimation and veiled subtext can tell us more than the words on the page. Perhaps it’s the loaded subject matter, the kaleidescope of perspectives offered on the topic of abortion (and, by extension, the agency of women) in so few words. It introduced me to the idea of writing as a craft, like carpentry or mosaic tiling. I don’t think I’d ever been particularly interested in short stories before reading this one – I figured they were like teething husks for writers before they started on the “real” work of novels – but all that changed with this gem from Hemingway. That bastard.
Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
I’ll try not to harp on about this one too much, because long-time Keeper Upperers have heard me talk about it a lot, but no list of books that changed my life would be complete without Nineteen Eighty Four. My father handed me a copy when I was about thirteen (it’s hard to remember exactly), and I think I’ve read it about twenty times over since. This book changed everything for me: without it, I might never have developed an interest in politics, a passion for advocacy, a dedication to active resistance. Every time I show up to a protest, or write to a Member for Parliament, or sign a petition, I’m doing so because this book so affected me and changed my understanding of the world. I’m forever grateful to my father for sensing the right moment in my life to hand it to me; the gift wasn’t the book, it was the opening of my eyes to the realities of oppression and power.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
All of the other books that changed my life I’ve listed here so far are ones I read before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins. So, here’s one that I’ve actually read and reviewed for the purposes of this blog: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Like the Hemingway story, it’s hard for me to pin down exactly why or how it changed me. I think, perhaps, it’s the way it challenged me to question my own assumptions. The plot twist of this book (about seventy pages in) pulled the rug out from underneath me like no book ever had before. So, it’s set the bar for all future plot twists pretty damn high! But above and beyond the masterful writing, this story poked some serious holes in everything I thought I understood about personhood, humanity, and the lines that demarcate us. I’ve made it my life’s mission to thrust this book into the hands of every reader I can (and so far, I’m doing pretty good, I think!). Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
The Islanders by F J Campbell
Of all the books that changed my life on this list, this one is probably the most self-indulgent, so I hope you’ll forgive me – but I can’t deny that it was life-changing in the most wonderful way. The Islanders is the first book that an author ever sent to me, in the hopes that I would review it and share my thoughts with Keeper Upperers. Until Fiona reached out to me, I had no idea that there would be writers out there who would think that my opinions on their books were worth having (indeed, most of the authors I’d reviewed up until that point were long dead!). It was reading The Islanders, and Fiona’s very kind encouragement, that opened up a door to a whole new world for me: “real” book reviewing, where I could say what I thought about books on a public platform and people would care (and sometimes even pay me for my efforts!). It’s now my life’s work, and I’ve reviewed hundreds of books since, but I’ll never forget this one (you know what they say…).
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
How weird is it that one of the books that changed my life is one that I didn’t even like that much? Moby Dick was a real slog to read, I’m not going to lie. I would drift off in the middle of endless chapters about whale sperm and oil paintings, wondering what the heck Melville was getting at. But this was the book I was reading when I decided to quit my job at the bank, to pursue a life of writing and reading and creativity. This was the book that inspired me to make a “proper go” of Keeping Up With The Penguins, and various other projects. This was the book that made me realise a classic need not be “readable” in order to be extraordinarily important and beneficial to have read. My tattered copy of Moby Dick (another one “borrowed” from my now-husband’s collection actually, ha! We’ve come full circle!) is talismanic, now, and it’s probably the first thing I would grab in the event of a fire. Read my full review of Moby Dick here.
So, there you have it: the seven books that changed my life, and how! I can only imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t read any one of them… What about you? What books have changed your life? Let me know in the comments!
Every booklover I know has some secret shame. Whether it’s a classic they’ve never read, or a “bad” book they love, there’s something that they hope their fellow booklovers never discover. Well, no more! Inspired by the radical vulnerability exhibited by the My Favorite Murder gals in their memoir Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, I’m going to put a bookish twist on a game from another one of my most-beloved podcasts, The Guilty Feminist. The host, Deborah Frances-White, starts every show with what she calls “exfoliation of shame”, declaring “I’m a feminist, but…” and confessing her sins. Here are my ten bookish confessions…
I’m a booklover, but… I hated The Great Gatsby
I’m starting off with an easy one, one I feel very little shame about at all, really: I really hated The Great Gatsby. I know, I know, it’s a “beautiful” story of the destructive power of the American dream… but it stank. The supposed quality of the writing (which, yeah, was okay) didn’t make up for the nonsense story. I suppose I might’ve liked it more if it hadn’t always been lauded as the “great American novel” or the “definitive story of the Jazz Age”. It is neither. It’s the story of a wealthy guy exploiting his privilege to stalk his married neighbour, and the narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that it’s fun to drink and party with pretty girls. Pffft! Hate it. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
I’m a booklover, but… Mr Rochester is one of my problematic faves.
I loved Jane Eyre. Charlotte is definitely my favourite of the Brontës. The only thing is, her romantic lead – Mr Rochester – is problematic, to say the least. He exploits his position of power over his young governess in ways that would definitely see him called out on social media in a post-#metoo world. He’s a racist git who locks his Creole wife in the attic, because she had the audacity to get a bit cranky with him. I know all of this. And, yet, I can’t help but feel my heart go all aflutter when he and Jane get their happy ending. I’m not even a romantic, I swear! There’s just something about the two of them, and seeing such an earnest heroine finally get the love she’s been hoping for… I try to comfort myself with the fact that at least his wife extracted her revenge, setting a fire that left him severely wounded. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.
I’m a booklover, but… I almost never listen to audiobooks.
I’m constantly espousing the benefits of audiobooks. I will shout down anyone who tries to say that listening to an audiobook isn’t “really” reading. I think that they’re an incredible, accessible resource, especially for folks with low vision or other disabilities that make traditional reading formats difficult. You could say I’m a strong advocate, to put it mildly. And yet, I never seem to actually get around to reading them myself! I have the app on my phone, I’m all set up, but there are just SO MANY GREAT PODCASTS to keep up with, all my listening time is used up on them. I know I’m only hurting myself, in the long run, and missing out on some great reading experiences. I’m actually thinking of joining one of those audiobook challenges, to give me the boot up the bum I clearly need… (if there’s one you can recommend, please drop it in the comments below!)
I’m a booklover, but… I’m really skeptical about self-published books.
Okay, now we’re getting into the real stuff. One of the perks of being a book reviewer is that I get sent all types of books from all types of authors, including self-published ones. I’m lucky in that most of the self-published books I’ve been sent have been great! But *deep breath* I’ve also been sent some shockers, and I’ve encountered some self-published authors who are real dickheads. I don’t want to let a few bad apples spoil the barrel, but unfortunately they’ve made me super-skeptical, and I rarely pursue self-published books because of it. I know there are plenty of booklovers who love (even prefer) self-published books, and would say that I’m a snob or an elitist for being so selective with them – I promise, I’m not. I’ve just been burned before, and I can’t help that it makes me a little skittish.
I’m a booklover, but… I own books I’ll probably never read.
First, this is a simple matter of quantity: at last count, there were well over three four hundred unread books on my shelves. I acquire at least a few more each week, and I very rarely part with books. Even if I read a book a day for years (which, given how chunky some of them are, seems like a pipe dream), I still wouldn’t get through them all. Then, there’s the matter of mood and taste. Keeping Up With The Penguins has really opened up my world when it comes to reading, and I’m far more game to try something new than I would have been before I started… but there are still some books I doubt I’ll ever be in the mood to pluck from my shelves. Many of them were gifts, or unsolicited review copies, or books I bought without really thinking it through. Why keep them, then? All kinds of reasons, but mostly “just in case”.
I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I recommend books I don’t like, or have never read.
HOLD YOUR ROTTEN TOMATOES! I know this is pretty much the cardinal sin for a book blogger, but hear me out. I would never “fake” recommend a book in a review here on the blog. When I call a book Recommended on Keeping Up With The Penguins, you can be damn sure that I’ve read it, loved it, and want to press it into your hands. I’m talking about those personal one-on-one recommendations, where a friend says “Hey, can you recommend a book for me/my lover/my cat-sitter?”. I always ask what they have in mind, or if they can tell me some books they’ve loved in the past, and use that to guide my recommendation. Sometimes – I stress, only sometimes – their answers lead me to think of books that, even though I didn’t love them personally, would probably really suit them. Or, I think of a book I’ve heard a lot about that sounds like the kind of thing they’d enjoy, even though I’ve not yet read it yet. So, really, it’s a good thing, right? Instead of forcing on them only books that I really love for myself, I’m taking their tastes and preferences into account. Right? Right?
I’m a booklover, but… I just didn’t “get” Mrs Dalloway.
I’m pretty sure this one makes me both a bad booklover and a bad feminist. I really tried with Mrs Dalloway, I did. I’ve loved some of Virginia Woolf’s other writing, and I really thought I’d get a lot out of her (arguably) most famous novel. But I just didn’t “get” it! It was so hard to follow! I had to re-read every sentence three times, and even then, it all just leaked through, like the book turned my brain into a sieve. I think I actually *gulp* preferred Ulysses, the notoriously unreadable book to which Woolf was responding. I’m open to trying Mrs D again in the future, maybe I’ll get more out of it the second time round, but for now, I’d rather just re-watch The Hours. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.
I’m a booklover, but… I find it really hard to DNF a book (any book, even one I hate).
For the uninitiated, to “DNF” means to abandon a book without finishing it – it’s a “did not finish”. I feel like every other booklover in the world has told me that it’s great to DNF a book, that it frees you up to read something you enjoy, that life’s too short to waste on books that won’t fulfill you. The thing is, I’m a dirty completionist at heart; when I start something, I feel compelled to finish it. That’s why I suffered through to the end of those dreadful self-published efforts I mentioned earlier, and books like The Great Gatsby, American Sniper, and others I really didn’t like. Maybe it’s foolishly optimistic of me, like there’s a small part of me that hopes it’ll turn around or magically get better… but, whatever the case, at least you can be confident that every book I review here, I have read from cover to cover.
I’m a booklover, but… sometimes I like the movie better than the book.
It’s rare that I watch film or TV adaptations of books. In fact, I don’t really watch all that many films or TV shows at all, so if I do happen to watch one based on a book, it’s usually just a happy coincidence. That said, sometimes I actually prefer the movie to the book (and yes, I heard you gasp out loud just now). I certainly enjoyed the HBO series of Game Of Thrones way more than I enjoyed the book version. Same goes for the HBO take on Fahrenheit 451 (which I actually reviewed here on the blog, by the way). I love the movie Breakfast At Tiffany’s so much that I’ve sworn to myself I’ll never read the original Capote novella on which it is based, just in case it ruins it for me. I know the general wisdom is “don’t judge a book by its movie”, and normally the screen versions fall short, but there are exceptions.
I’m a booklover, but… I really judge people who don’t use bookmarks, or otherwise damage their books.
Look, I’m not saying they’re going to hell or anything, but seriously! I think the world would be a better place if no one ever dog-eared a book or cracked a spine ever again. And I don’t judge them that harshly (I mean, I married one such monster – and I only occasionally shame him by sharing photos of books he’s destroyed on my Instagram). I’m more open to the idea of marginalia, where the defacement of a book actually serves the purpose of engaging with the text, or writing inscriptions in gifts to loved ones (always fun and heartwarming to find those in a secondhand book), but otherwise just… don’t. Get a bookmark, and/or a book sleeve, and show your books some goddamn respect. Sheesh!
Now come on, don’t leave me hanging, here! Share your bookish confessions in the comments below, and we can all exfoliate our shame together…
Keeping Up With The Penguins operates on the lands of the Gadigal people, of the Eora nation. This land was never ceded or sold. Our First Nations communities have the oldest continuing storytelling tradition in the world, and custodianship of the land always was, always will be, theirs.
Keeping Up With The Penguins is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.