Long before I even thought of starting this blog, I sat down and made a list: a hundred-and-nine books I felt I “should” have read already. A lot of them were classics, some were more contemporary best-sellers, all of them were pretty much unknown quantities. I took notes as I read about what I liked and what I didn’t, and those notes became reviews, and those reviews became Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now that I’ve finished reading my way through that original list (never fear, the blog will continue and more reviews are coming!) I’m feeling all nostalgic and shit. I thought I’d take a look back at my greatest hits: the best of the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Even after I read all the blurbs and the accolades, I had no idea what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was going to be about when I sat down to start reading it. Turns out, there’s a very good reason for that. This book had the mother-of-all twists that came seventy pages in, one that completely turns the story on its head. It has set the standard for all plot twists in every book I’ve read since (and very few have lived up to it). But that’s not the only reason to read this book: it’s funny, it’s touching, and I swear it made me a better person. Whenever I’m asked to give a book recommendation for a complete stranger, this is the first one I suggest. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
A Short History Of Everything wasn’t a completely unknown quantity. I’d read Bill Bryson’s Down Under years ago, and loved it – it’s hard not to be charmed by his folksy style, his wry humour, and his insightful anecdotes. Still, A Short History Of Nearly Everything is in a league of its own. It’s practically a masterclass on how to write about complex topics for the everyday reader. Somehow, Bryson managed to make the most intricate jargon-y scientific and historical knowledge of humankind accessible, understandable, and – most importantly of all – fun! I know it’s a few years out of date now (my edition still says Pluto is a planet, whoops!), but I still use fun facts from this book on a daily basis. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
When I was putting together my original reading list, I knew I had to include Dickens. He was my late grandfather’s favourite author, and I always regretted not having read any of his work while Granddad was still alive; I know we would have had incredible discussions about it. I went with David Copperfield because I read that Dickens had said it was his personal favourite, and who am I to question the author? It totally held up to all of my expectations – exceeded them, even, high as they were! It’s a long, long book, but it didn’t feel like it. I devoured it like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I’m a true crime junkie, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I listen to the podcasts, and follow the breaking news on cold cases. And now, having read it, I can see why In Cold Blood is considered essential reading, the foundational text, of the true crime genre. Capote spent six years investigating the Clutter murders, taking over eight thousand pages of notes (helped by his best buddy, Harper Lee, don’t forget), and whittled them down into this incredible book, the “first true crime novel” as he called it. And, before you say it, I know he took some liberties with the truth. I bloody know, alright? Make what you will of the ethics of it, but when the book is this good, I’m willing to overlook a bit of creative license. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend taught me more about the art of translation than any other book on my list. It was originally written in Italian by an anonymous author (Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume, and I don’t care what some dickhead with an algorithm thinks he figured out, her true identity has never been revealed), and translated into English by Ann Goldstein. I was so impressed with the way Goldstein managed to retain the rolling lyricism of the original Italian that I started to do a bit of digging, which ended up being a rabbit hole into the world of books in translation. Not only is My Brilliant Friend an incredible read, it’s also a testament to the power of language, and the importance of the #namethetranslator movement. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Do you ever read a book and wonder why on earth everyone isn’t talking about it already? That’s how I felt with Cold Comfort Farm. It had a strange cover that kind of put me off, but in deference to the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I ploughed ahead anyway, and I am SO glad I did. Stella Gibbons is a criminally underrated comic author, and Cold Comfort Farm is a work of hilarious genius. It’s like a satirical Mary Poppins, with a cast of characters so eccentric and bizarre they’ll have your eyes wide when they don’t have you in stitches. What’s more, I found out later that Gibbons remains relatively unknown because she refused to play the game and suck up to the literary giants of her day. I say let’s not let her fall into obscurity because she didn’t enjoy networking! Read my full review of Cold Comfort Farm here.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Speaking of underrated kick-arse women writers: did you know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a book, long before it was a Marilyn Monroe film? I didn’t until I was putting my reading list together, and I was curious enough to give it a try. Anita Loos should be a household name. She was the first salaried scriptwriter to work with major Hollywood studios. She crafted characters that felt so real you could almost reach out and touch them (the protagonist in this book, Lorelei Lee, being a case in point). Loos was observant, brilliant, and funny as hell. Unfortunately, she fell in love with an arsehole, who lived off her profits and cut her down whenever he felt threatened. So, screw him, I say, and while we’re at it, screw anyone who says The Great Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. It’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes all the way, baby! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Before I started reading my way through this list, all I knew about Scandinavian writers was that they wrote crime. Good crime. Grisly crime. Hardened detectives in cold climates sussing out awful murders. But now, having read The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I’ve got to say I think that reputation is a damn shame. This is one of the most delightful, charming, and uplifting books I’ve ever read. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief for a minute or two, but it’s worth it: it’s so worth it. It’s a European Forrest Gump, but better. My edition was translated into English by Rod Bradbury (#namethetranslator!). Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Whenever I get into an argument with someone about whether to bother reading the introduction to a classic book (so many people just skip straight to chapter one!), I always whip out Little Women and beat them over the head with it. This book was written off for centuries as light, sentimental fluff – it was a book “for girls”, and never taken seriously as part of the American literary canon. I might’ve come away from it with the same impression had I not read the introduction, which gave me some context about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the way she came to write her best-known work. This is an incredible book, but you have to be paying close attention and know what to look for. Read my full review of Little Women here.
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Have you ever read a book so good it just made you angry? When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, when I put the book down on my lap and tried to catch my breath after that sucker-punch of a final scene, I found myself irrationally angry at every person in my life who had ever read this book. Why hadn’t they warned me? I’m not sure I even liked it very much at first because I was so startled by it. It’s the story of a family migrating from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, but it’s alarmingly analogous to current events as a result of climate change. I was so moved, and so wrecked, by this book that I needed to put myself in a time-out before I put a hole in a wall. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I have no idea how Crime And Punishment ended up on my reading list. I was dreading it, to say the least. I eschewed Anna Karenina and War And Peace for the same reason: it’s a Russian classic, which – I was sure – meant it was going to be dense, dull, and depressing. How wrong I was, reader! How wrong I was! This edition – translated into English by David McDuff (name! the! translator!) – was well loved before it fell into my hands, as the tattered cover shows, and I can see why. I never thought I would laugh with, cry for, or relate so hard to a literal axe murderer… and yet, here we are. Seriously, don’t sleep on this one, folks, and never let a book’s reputation decide for you whether it’s to your tastes. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Do you know that The Bell Jar is one of the most difficult classic books to find in secondhand stores? There’s a reason for that: no one ever wants to part with their copy. I checked my local secondhand bookstore on an almost-daily basis for months, and never found one. I was about to give up hope and buy it new when a friend stopped by that very same bookstore on her way to visit me and saw this beautiful Faber edition on display – it had come in that very day. She bought it for me, and I loved it. Loved it. The prose is every bit as beautiful as the cover. It’s one of the first things I would save in a fire. Sylvia Plath’s true-life (and death) story is heart-breaking of course, but I’m so, so glad and grateful that she was able to bring this book into the world before she passed. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.
It’s been one heck of a ride, hasn’t it? And it’s not over yet! What have been your favourites from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list? Any new favourites that I should read and review ASAP? Let me know in the comments below!
April 1, 2020 at 5:31 PM
A Short History of Nearly Everything indeed most of what Bryson has written has been great to read, usually greatly funny and always books I can recommend. However as I carry on reading him I realise he begins to remind me how old I am. It’s been rather a few decades since I started reading him and often now he mentions his early writing and when it was that it was written.