Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 3)

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Well, well, well: wasn’t this a pleasant surprise? When I picked up this copy of The Grapes Of Wrath (another secondhand bargain, once belonging to a “William Lang” who was kind enough to keep it in pretty good nick for me), I didn’t have high hopes. I’d just read two white-men-talking-to-each-other-about-power stories back-to-back (reviews here and here), and I figured I’d be in for more of the same. But, once again, this project up-ends my expectations: I loved Steinbeck’s story, more than I could have imagined! I think it’s another happy coincidence, coming to a book at the right time; this story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world.

Steinbeck was no slouch in the writing game. The Grapes Of Wrath took home a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The story begins with Tom Joad, a recent parolee, returning home to Oklahoma. On his way, he runs into Jim Casy, a former preacher, and they decide to travel together. When they make it to Tom’s family home, they find the farm deserted, and an old neighbour tells them that the Joad clan has gone to stay at another farm nearby, the banks having evicted almost everyone in the area.

In fact, the Joads – who are pretty much penniless, the Dust Bowl having destroyed their crops – are loading up a truck they intend to drive to California. They’ve heard there’s work aplenty there, and the pay is decent, so it seems as good an idea as any (and, well, they ain’t got a lot of options). Even though leaving Oklahoma will violate his parole, Tom jumps in with them, and convinces Jim to come along for the ride.



I was particularly impressed with the way Steinbeck used dialect. It felt very readable, fluid, natural – and even though he was effectively writing about “hicks” and “rednecks”, to use the pejorative terms, he didn’t once condescend to Southerners or make a spectacle of them.

The Joads quickly learn that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. They encounter many migrant groups living in makeshift camps along their route, all with horrible stories about the true nature of the life and work on Californian farms. One-by-one, the Joads start to exit the story: Grandpa dies, then Grandma (with poor old Ma Joad riding with her corpse in the back of the truck for hours before alerting the others, to ensure they made it to California without delay), eldest son Noah leaves them, and then Connie bolts too (he’s the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon – and yes, that’s her real given name, but she’s most often referred to as “Rosasharn”). Oh, and the dog dies. The Grapes Of Wrath is a pretty traumatic read, on the whole.

You might be thinking that Tom Joad is the hero of this story, but you’d be wrong. Ma Joad is the star of the show. She’s now one of my favourite characters in all of American literature. It’s under her leadership that the Joad family continues to seek work and make the best of their shitty circumstances. Pa Joad, the “head of the house”, is completely demoralised and basically useless, so Ma Joad takes the reins and does a damn fine job. They would have been completely screwed without her (well, they were still pretty screwed, but less so for Ma Joad being an incredible kick-arse matriarch).



Anyway, when they make it to California, they find a very saturated labour market, meaning most families are forced to work for a pittance and exploited to the point of literal starvation. Steinbeck really went all-out, he shat on capitalism from a great height. Jim Casy takes it upon himself to unionise the workers, co-ordinating a strike, but it all ends in tears when a police confrontation turns violent (Steinbeck also hated cops, it would seem). Tom witnesses Casy’s fatal beating, and takes his vengeance, killing the cop. He winds up back on the run, a murderous fugitive once again.

Ma Joad doesn’t let a little thing like her son’s homicidal tendencies slow them down. She makes Tom promise that he will use his lucky break, having escaped arrest, to fight for workers’ rights and end the oppression that is quite literally killing the working class. The Joads continue on, finding more work at a cotton farm, but this is a things-go-from-bad-to-worse story, so strap in. George R.R. Martin ain’t got nothin’ on Steinbeck, honestly – Georgie has a high body count, sure, but Steinbeck tortures and starves his characters in the most twisted of ways.

Rose Of Sharon’s bun in the oven dings, and she labours for hours on the floor of the shack they’re calling home. Her baby, sadly, is stillborn. I had literal tears welling in my eyes; I’m normally a tough nut to crack, but these scenes were absolutely devastating. Ma Joad holds it together (because of course she does) and lucky she does, because an almighty storm blows up and floodwaters inundate the area. The family has to bail on the shack, and seek shelter in a barn up the road. There, they find a young boy and his father, also not in a good way. The young boy is dying, he hasn’t eaten in forever, and Rose of Sharon – at Ma Joad’s prompting – offers him her breastmilk, saving his life. It is truly one of the most haunting passages I have ever read. And also, it’s The End.



I felt like I’d been punched! The Grapes Of Wrath, with that fucking ending, was so damn good that I started getting angry. Why had no one in my life who had read it warned me what was coming?! Gah!

The only thing that soured my experience of reading this Great American Novel was finding out later that Steinbeck ripped off a woman (naturally). It would seem that he “borrowed” heavily from the notes of Farm Security Administration worker Sanora Babb, who was researching migrant families with a view to writing her own book in 1938. Her boss showed her work to Steinbeck, and the rest is why-do-women-keep-getting-screwed-over-and-over history. The publication and popularity of The Grapes Of Wrath scuppered any hopes that Babb had of getting her own work out there. Her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, and she died the following year.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Steinbeck also has his wife to thank for the book’s iconic title. He was struggling to come up with anything himself, then she suggested The Grapes Of Wrath, having read the phrase near the end of Chapter 25 where Steinbeck described the purposeful destruction of food to keep demand (and profits) high:

“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Chapter 25

And she nailed it: that line really captures what The Grapes Of Wrath is all about. It’s a story of the potential for a working class revolt, how the seeds of a revolution are sown. Steinbeck said that, in writing the novel, he wanted “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” (“this” being the Great Depression and its domino effect). That’s why the book has been so powerful and popular with supporters of the workers’ movement.



Its publication “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event”, later reports claimed. The Grapes Of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, and it was debated and discussed at length in all manner of public and private forums. Many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries attacked his social and political views as expressed through his story of the Joads, but he did not give one single fuck. All the controversy just led to more book sales.

The Grapes Of Wrath feels timeless, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can all find something familiar in a story about automation, and climate change, and the feelings of powerlessness and fear they inspire. Save for a few technological advancements, I would completely believe that this was a contemporary novel set in the present day. If you’re in the mood to say Fuck The Man! but also want to read a heart-wrenching and beautiful family story, you need to pick up a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath and get stuck in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Grapes Of Wrath:

  • “My package arrived empty. I would like a refund, but have nothing to return.” – Amie Majerus
  • “I had to read this book in high school. I hope English teachers aren’t still forcing teenagers to read this book, but they probably are. I still think about the ending sometimes and wonder if there was something wrong with John Steinbeck.” – Janette
  • “Bought this book thinking I would learn how to make a nice bitter wine for a get together for me and my gal pals… But it’s just a book about people traveling in the depression. I was expecting some grapes being angry. Also there are no grapes in this book whatsoever!!” – Amazon Customer
  • “I have been reading books that won Pulitzer prizes. I’m very happy with most of them. This one is terrible. The author, John Steinbeck, commented “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Thanks for nothing. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags. And that’s why I give this book the lowest possible score.



    The point of the story is that rich bastards are bastards. Got it. Agreed. Bastards are bastards. Got it. I don’t want to go on this journey. It’s like the old Mr. Bill skits on Saturday Nite Live. Do you remember Mr. Bill? Everything horrible happens to Mr. Bill. That’s what this book is. Mr. Bill.

    

I will happily join your revolution but I will not read your book to the end. It’s too messed up. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags.” – LF

  • “One of the boringest published novels I’ve ever laid eyes on.” – C. Cross
  • “So, I’m only on page 478 of 619, but I’ve been disgusted at the amount of profanity. So far I’ve found more than 500 uses of profanity! On average every page (with relatively big writing, even) has more than one swear. Yikes!

    

I’m never going to read Grapes of Wrath again, and won’t be recommending it to anyone.

If you don’t like profanity, be careful.” – Jef4Jesus

  • “This book was 600 pages written purly about a bunch of hicks from Oklahoma starving. Thanks, but no thanks,” – M. Landis

P.S. Never forget this pearler of a tweet from publisher Antonio French during the Trump campaign:

All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

It’s been a while since I visited the American South in literature. I think my last sojourn was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, some time ago. That’s how I came to reach for All The King’s Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winner by Robert Penn Warren in 1946. I was actually surprised, looking at the inside cover, to find it was written so long ago; it reads like a far more contemporary novel and as recently as 2006 the New York Times called it “the definitive novel about American politics” (though, that was pre-Trump, so it’d be understandable if their position has changed).

Our narrator is Jack Burden, a former history student and newspaper columnist turned personal aide. He recounts for us the meteoric rise of Governor Willie Stark in the American South in the 1930s. He’s fascinated, and at times disgusted, by the larger-than-life populist leader. Stark transforms over the course of the novel from idealistic lawyer to hardened (and extremely powerful) politico. Burden faithfully documents the evolution of “The Boss”, and the role of his doctor friend Adam Stanton, who is not-very-subtly painted as the polar opposite of Stark. Stanton is the man of ideals, the angel on one shoulder, while Stark is the pragmatic and corrupt devil on the other.

The chapters are loooooong, and intense. Warren really doesn’t give the reader many opportunities to pause and catch their breath. He also uses decidedly non-chronological storytelling, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (think more Mrs Dalloway than The Narrow Road To The Deep North). Warren uses the shifts in time to highlight the connections between characters and continuities in their stories, how Burden and Stark and Stanton’s lives all weave together. That means there are a few stories-within-the-story, most notably a detailed history of Jack’s uncle (whom he researched in pursuit of his American History degree), and also Jack’s own life (which he tells, bizarrely, in the third person). Jack wouldn’t have been much fun at parties, actually, with his penchant for endless nihilistic philosophising. It takes the deaths of a few of his mates, and his biological father, for him to even contemplate the notion that he has to take some personal responsibility for what happens in his life, instead of attributing it all to what he calls “the Great Twitch”. That said, some of his introspective bullshit was actually quite funny:

“‘Can I see the cutting?’ I asked. I felt all of a sudden that I had to see it. I had never seen an operation. As a newspaperman, I had seen three hangings and one electrocution, but they are different. In a hanging you do not change a man’s personality. You just change the length of his neck and give him a quizzical expression, and in an electrocution you just cook some bouncing meat in a wholesale lot. But this operation was going to be more radical even than what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. So I asked could I see the operation.”

pg. 477




All The King’s Men is very dude-centric, if that’s not already obvious: it fails the Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion, with nearly 700 pages of white dudes talking to one another about power, clapping themselves on the back for gaining power, and ever-striving to become more powerful than some other white dude. There are a couple of love interests and mistresses, and these are the only appropriate roles for women in that world, it would seem. Jack devotes quite a long passage to his regret at never having fucked his first love, and of his wife he simply says “Goodbye Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you,” (pg. 462).

Warren fills the hole where the women should be by making a Very Big Deal of biological paternity, and how one’s father affects one’s sense of identity and morality. It’s central to every plot-line and character arc; the book would perhaps be more accurately called All The King’s Daddy Issues. Stark, in becoming a Governor through patronage and intimidation, becomes a surrogate father for all of them: deeply flawed, but influential, and impossible to ignore or reject. The thrust of the story, it would seem, is that Jack comes to realise that no man or father (not the man who raised him, not his bio dad, not Willie Stark) is invulnerable to corruption or temptation. Oh, and it’s impossible to remain a passive observer of anything, no matter how hard you try. Whatever you do, it will catch up with you, etc. Such profound, very wow…



The character of Stark is famously rumoured to have been inspired by the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that All The King’s Men was “never intended to be a book about politics” (fucking lol, alright mate, odd choice of subject matter then).

There’s a surprisingly happy ending, all things considered. Yes, there’s a lot of death and bloodshed, but Jack gets the girl, reconciles with his father(s), and carries on living the good life. I was expecting something far more bleak, but Warren managed to pull a Happily Ever After out of his hat.

Tl;dr? A bunch of white dudes chase political power in the Great Depression-era American South, in the hopes that it will help them all overcome their Daddy Issues (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work).

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The King’s Men:

  • “I am a business professor so the long involved descriptions of his angst drove me crazy.” – CP
  • “Somewhat tedious” – Carol Weidensaul
  • “Greek drama set in depression era Louisiana. Sad,” – Martha Failing
  • “This edition appeared to have been translated by a child. I got a real book from the public library. Very disappointed.” – Gwen Luikart
  • “Thought it stunk.” – Barbara J Mason
  • “Had to read this for my AP English class. -10/10 stars, would not recommend, take regular english instead.” – Emmy
  • “I AM ALSO A TINA FRIEND AND HER INSIGHTFUL AND TRUE COMMENTS INTO THIS MONSTROSITY OF A BOOK MAKE ME PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!” – A customer

Divergent – Veronica Roth

I know there’s still a lot of ingrained snobbery and elitism that causes some readers to look down their noses at young adult books, but it’s hard to argue with the power of a juggernaut like Divergent, whatever you might think of the genre. It was a New York Times Best Seller (a couple times over, actually), and a Goodreads Choice Awards winner (Favourite Book Of The Year in 2011). According to Publisher’s Weekly, the combined three volumes of the series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 alone. Whatever we might think of it, clearly Veronica Roth’s dystopian world has captured more than a few minds and hearts…

So, just to be clear, I’m reviewing the first book in the Divergent series (also, confusingly, called Divergent), a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels (it’s followed by Insurgent, then Allegiant) set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth’s meteoric rise is all the more enviable when you learn that Divergent was published less than a year after she earned a degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University; in fact, she’d sold the film rights before she’d even graduated. But don’t let the green-eyed monster overtake you just yet, my honest review is still to come…

See, Divergent doesn’t exactly start strong (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t improve much along the way). Roth opens her story with the old protagonist-examines-her-reflection-in-the-mirror trope, ugh. She gives some kind of half-arsed explanation as to why she’s only allowed to look in the mirror once a month or something, but it still irked me. It’s such a lazy way for a writer to “show” the reader what a narrator looks like, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This central character, Beatrice (well, “Tris”, as she’s later known), and her family are among the survivors of some unspecified apocalyptic event (and yes, it’s extremely frustrating that Roth doesn’t give us any more details on the back-story, but that’s the least of our problems here). What we do know is that everyone is now divided into five “factions”, based on their dispositions and inclinations. The Abnegation are the selfless ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Erudite are the smart ones. They’re kind of like the castes in Brave New World, but not quite so hierarchical; each faction has a different role to play in society, and theoretically they should all work together in harmony.



Kids are raised in the faction of their parents (in Tris’s case, Abnegation) until they turn sixteen, at which point they are given an “aptitude” test and forced to choose a permanent faction for themselves at the creatively-named Choosing Ceremony. No, I’m not kidding. Anyone who doesn’t complete initiation into their new faction becomes “factionless” (the creativity just keeps on coming), and is forced to live in poverty on the streets, reliant on charity to survive. Tris’s aptitude test shows that she could belong to any one of three factions, and thus she is “divergent”. An early warning: do not attempt to turn this into a drinking game by doing a shot every time someone uses the word “divergent”, because you will die. Tris pretty much whacks you over the head with her divergence for the rest of the book.

The test administrator warns her to keep her divergence under her hat, so Tris takes her word for it and acts like she’s normal. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction, much to her parents’ dismay, and her brother simultaneously fucks off to the Erudite (so a double-whammy for Abnegation).

Tris’s instructor at the Dauntless compound is “Four”. Roth said he was originally the protagonist in her first draft of the novel, but she switched to Tris’s perspective because she felt it “worked better”. Four tells Tris and the rest of the Dauntless initiates that they’ll be tested again and again, and only the top ten candidates will be accepted into the faction. The guy’s welcome speech could use some work, tbh.



You can smell the relationships forming a mile off, they’re all very predictable. Tris befriends some of her fellow transfer initiates (Christina, Al, and Will), comes into conflict with others (Peter, Drew, and Molly), and falls head over heels in love with Four. And later on, one of her chosen friends betrays her. It’s all rather uninspired and cliche, but we persist!

It turns out that these “tests” for the Dauntless initiates are mostly a series of drug-induced hallucinations while they’re hooked up to technological gizmos. They’re forced to face their worst fears in a simulation, and beat them. Roth said she was inspired in part by learning about exposure therapy in an introductory psychology course. Important note: this is a very gross misrepresentation of what exposure therapy is actually about, and how it works for people with phobias and other anxiety disorders. If Roth has scared anyone off seeking treatment with this story, I will be very, very cross.

Anyway, Tris’s divergent abilities actually give her an advantage in this fucked-up testing scenario, and she (quite rightly) exploits it to make sure she gets that top ten ranking. But of course, no one likes a kiss arse, so the other initiates attack her and do their best to take her down a peg.



Meanwhile, in Grown Up World, the Erudite faction are stirring dissent against Abnegation. See, the selfless ones were given the role of governing the city, because they’re so selfless and all, but the clever ones are pretty fed up with that situation. They accuse the Abnegation leaders of abusing their children (and Four brings Tris into one of his fear simulation thingos, revealing that he was indeed abused by his Abnegation father, so not everything the Erudite are saying is fake news). The dispute reaches crisis point when the Erudite inject all of the Dauntless with a serum that allows them to be controlled in one giant simulation. The Erudite mobilise them as an army, stage a coup, and take down the Abnegation.

To put this in terms everyone will understand, let’s highlight a few of the very obvious Harry Potter parallels: in the Divergent world, the Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws (who are actually just clever Slytherins in disguise) gang up on the Hufflepuffs. You following?

It turns out that the Erudite serum doesn’t actually work on divergent members of the faction, which is why the test administrator encouraged Tris to keep it to herself; if she can’t be controlled, she’s a threat to the system and the whole Erudite plot to gain power. The divergent kids, led by Tris and Four (oh yeah, turns out her boyfriend is also divergent, vomit), rebel against the Erudite, uniting to disable the simulation. Once that’s handle, they escape to the Amity compound – that’s the nice faction, remember them? They don’t get much of a look-in in the story otherwise. Both of Tris’s parents are killed in the fight, the military conflict remains unresolved, and that’s where Divergent ends. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the next book (duh).



I think my feelings have been made abundantly clear already, but just in case, I’ll say it straight: the writing isn’t good. It’s full of lines like this:

“I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery.”

Divergent (p. 96)

I mean, come on! Tris gets sweaty palms, a lot. As in she mentions it on practically every page, and it really wears thin very early on. There’s also a lot of references to necks, and a lot of chapters and sections that start with “the next morning”. I thought initially that Divergent must have been self-published, without professional editing, because really this is the type of shit that would have been picked up by even a first-time editor. But nope! This book went through the full rigors of Harper Collins’s editorial process, and still came out this way. *shrugs*

If you think I’m being too persnickety, let’s take a step back and look at Divergent more broadly: it really doesn’t break any new ground. A young adult book that explores an adolescent’s relationship to adults and authority in a dystopian future is hardly revolutionary. Tris’s whole character arc is simply coming of age through a series of choices, always between conforming and choosing her own path – nothing new there, either. I read one review that sung the praises of how Roth “critiqued the illusion of democracy” (whereby citizens are able to “choose” which faction they join but are indoctrinated through the initiation process regardless of what they choose), but that seems to be an optimistically retro-fitted analysis at best. Roth really doesn’t explore that idea at all; it seemed to me more of a convenient plot point to get everyone divided into groups, given that the idea of a Sorting Hat was already taken.



The religious overtones are interesting, though. Roth says in the first sentence of her Author Acknowledgements: “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension”, so she’s clearly down with the Squad. There’s a very clear Point(TM) in the intellectual Erudite (read: genetics researchers, stem-cell harvesters, Galileo, etc.) being painted as control-hungry villains, pitted against the righteous, pious, and persecuted Abnegation. It gives me really bad vibes, actually. I mean the Erudites, who are clearly coded as academics and experts, are the “evil” ones, and in the world of Trump and Brexit it seems to reinforce a particularly scary position that experts are part of some kind of conspiracy to screw the everyman. I’m not sure if Roth intended to write a conservative religious call-to-arms, but that’s how it came across to me.

I’m not much good at content warnings, but Divergent probably warrants a few. There’s a lot of violence (including some sexualised violence), a major suicide as a plot point, and plenty of other distressing shit. This makes it all the more baffling that it’s recommended reading for young adolescents – why are we so much more willing to let kids read about men killing each other than we are men kissing each other? It’s a more confronting, more violent version of The Hunger Games. I know it’s gross to lump all female-protagonist-dystopian-future-YA novels into the same basket, but in this case they really are very similar on a lot of levels. I’ve also heard Divergent has a lot in common with The Maze Runner, which is also on my reading list – stay tuned for my thoughts on that front…

As I was putting together this review, I started to feel really guilty that I didn’t like Divergent more, like I was doing a disservice by hanging shit on something that legions of young readers really love. I promise, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, and if you enjoyed Divergent, power to you! No hard feelings! It’s just not for me. I couldn’t help but laugh at times at how truly bad I found it. I thought it was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fans Roth has won herself around the world, and the power that a beloved series like this can have in ensuring the continuing literacy of younger generations. (Please forgive me for how old that makes me sound!) As I said in the beginnings, elitists and snobs might look down their noses at a series like this, but I’m not one of them. I won’t be reading any more of Roth’s work, but I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Divergent:

  • “Funny as he’ll” – derrick
  • “thia is the sort of series tat doesnt deserve a 3 star rting its so bad sory for bad typing I am uinf a small kindle in bed.” – S. Berestizhevsky
  • “Cool I get to be review 44,444. 4s are my lucky number.

    

Anyway. I guess I am Divergent because this book is just…bad. I couldn’t get through more than 100 pages. It never got better. The premise is just, dumb. It’s basically a rip-off of the sorting hat from Harry Potter mixed with Hunger Games without all the action. The protagonist is supposedly the only person with a mind of her own in the entire book (besides some of the poor homeless/blue-collar workers who we should feel SO sorry for and look down on, in spite of them making up most of our actual society). She is labeled “divergent”, which is unspeakable. And basically, she doesn’t fit in. Poor girl. That’s about it. I don’t know why I even gave it two stars. I guess I’m feeling generous.



    I read that this book was written in a month. Sounds about right.” – Kristen

  • “Oh boy how to begin? This book is garbage! Utter garbage. I’m sorry, this review is literally better written than this book. Don’t waste your money. Also don’t buy books go to a library they’re dying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Daughter disappointed dont know why” – Amazon Customer

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Warning: this particular book 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 volume 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)

And:

“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 lovestruck 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 had been 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 a divorce proceeding, 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), when she could be lavishing her attentions more strategically in the direction of the wealthy movie producer Mr Goldmark. So, to draw her friend away from such 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 (and why she’s so distraught at his presence). 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 (duh) and notoriously stingy. Still, using a heady combination of flattery and promises of discretion, Lorelei convinces him to buy the coveted tiara for her.

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, and he remorsefully agrees not just to marry her, but 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 a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. 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

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

I love my Harper Voyager edition of Fahrenheit 451. It’s gorgeous! And it contains a really interesting introduction (yes, I still read those), written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary. In it, he describes how he wrote the entire book in the typewriter room of his local library. It cost him 10 cents per hour to use the machine, and the earliest draft cost him $9.80 to write, over the course of nine days. “So here, after fifty years, is Fahrenheit 451,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I’m glad that it was done.”

This edition also includes Bradbury’s afterword, and he gives some great insights into the book’s publication history. He explains the various difficulties he found in completing and publishing a book that’s ultimately about censorship. The most interesting tidbit, I thought, was this:

“A young Chicago editor, minus cash but full of future visions, saw my manuscript and bought it for four hundred and fifty dollars, all that he could afford, to be published in issues number two, three and four of his about to be born magazine. The young man was Hugh Hefner. The magazine was Playboy, which arrived during the winter of 1953/4 to shock and improve the world. The rest is history.”

Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451 afterword)

Maybe there really is something to the whole “reading Playboy for the articles” thing 😉 Anyway, if Hugh Hefner’s seal of approval doesn’t mean much to you, consider this: Barack Obama is also on record as saying that “Ray Bradbury’s gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world,”. Who can argue with praise that high?

Fahrenheit 451 is indeed widely regarded as the best of Bradbury’s works. It’s set in an unspecified city (probably somewhere in the American mid-West) at an unspecified time in the future (probably sometime after 1960). The story follows a fireman, Guy Montag, who becomes disillusioned with his job. See, in Montag’s world, firemen don’t put out fires – they burn books.



The plot kicks off when Montag meets Clarisse, his teenage neighbour and a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who spouts a bunch of free-thinking hippie-dippie bullshit as they walk home together each day. Then, one day, she disappears without explanation. On that basis alone, pretty much, Montag decides to up-end his entire life. The next time he’s called upon to burn books, a stash discovered in the home of a sweet old lady, he nicks one. He wants to see what all the fuss is about for himself.

(That old lady decides to stay with her books, by the way, even as the flames rise and she is burned to death. She’s the real hero of this story, tbh.)

Montag chucks a sickie the next day, and contemplates a change in career. His wife is not impressed in the slightest; she needs him to keep bringing in the Benjamins so she can buy a new flat-screen TV. Montag’s boss shows up, ostensibly to bust his balls for faking a case of gastro, but they end up having a D&M about the true history of how books came to be banned. When the boss leaves, Montag shows his wife the contraband he’s hiding in the roof, and she freaks out even harder. He wants to have a go at reading them (against his wife’s stern advice), so he reaches out to an English professor he met years ago, Faber, and convinces the old guy to help him.

Now, here’s where Montag gets really stupid: he starts flashing his stash of stolen books around in front of his wife’s friends. Understandably, this gives her the shits, and Montag is pretty much on the couch for life at this point. One of her friends tips off the authorities, and Montag’s boss shows up, this time in the firetruck, and commands Montag to burn down his own house. Montag’s all “yeah, okay”, and he does it… but he also knocks out all his co-workers and kills his boss with a flamethrower. That is the final fucking straw for Mrs Montag, and she leaves him to fondle his books on his lonesome.



Montag’s a bit slow on the uptake, but these developments are enough to finally get it through his skull that he Done Fucked Up(TM). Unfortunately, that realisation dawns at the same time that his bad decision making starts paying off. He runs, floating himself down a river, and meets up with a group of drifters. They’ve got this whole keep-literacy-alive-cabal thing going on, and they’ve all memorised books as an act of rebellion against the state. While everyone sits around swapping stories, war is declared on the city from which Montag has just escaped. They can’t do much but sit there, watching bombers fly over-head and drop explodey-things miles away. Everyone, except the drifters, bites the dust.

They’re pretty nonchalant about their narrow escape, however. They sit down to have dinner (seriously, no wonder they were exiled), and listen to their leader give a lecture about phoenixes and mirrors and what not. Then, they all pick up sticks and head back towards the city under the guise of “rebuilding”. (I’m pretty sure they were all dudes, so they might encounter some problems with the re-populating bit, but no one mentions that particular elephant in the room and the book ends without another word about it).

I must say – and I realise how uncool this is to admit – I didn’t care for Fahrenheit 451. On paper, the premise is compelling and I dig it, but the writing seems like a messy patchwork, as though Bradbury was trying to emulate six different authors at once. It’s got a real young adult vibe, which is probably why it’s so popular as a prescribed high-school read. I probably would have got a lot more out of it if I’d read it for the first time back then. As it stands, for present-day me, it was just… meh. Another one that didn’t live up to the hype. Bradbury perhaps just didn’t spend enough time or give himself enough space to do his great premise justice in the prose.

He had plenty of material to work with, after all. He was inspired by the destruction of the Library Of Alexandria, horrified by Nazi book burnings and Stalin’s Great Purge, and nostalgic for the Golden Age of Radio (he probably listened to Video Killed The Radio Star on repeat for years). Bradbury saw new forms of media as a threat to literacy and books, as though mass media would cause us all to forget how to read. Montag’s wife and her vapid friends were basically his way of foreshadowing the Kardashians. Usually, when we talk about Fahrenheit 451, it’s in the context of a cautionary tale against state-based censorship, but Bradbury did his best to play down those elements, especially later in life; he was hell-bent on retrofitting his mass-media-is-evil message into his best-known work.



Are you ready for a heaping serve of irony? Fahrenheit 451 was subjected to serious expurgation by its publisher not long after it was first released. Ballantine Books released the “Bal-Hi Edition” 1967, targeted at the high-school students with whom they realised it had become popular. They censored words like “hell”, “damn”, and “abortion”, amending seventy-five passages all told. At first, they published both the censored and the uncensored versions side-by-side, but by 1973 only the censored version was being re-printed. Bradbury didn’t even know about any of this until 1979, when one of his friends showed him an expurgated copy. I’d imagine he hit the roof harder than it has ever been hit before, and someone at Ballantine got fired (maybe a lot of someones).

By 1980, they were back to publishing the original, uncensored version. Bradbury has since referred to the practice as “manuscript mutilation”, so I think he held onto that grudge for a good, long while. While the reinstatement of the original text is undoubtedly a win in the battle against censorship, it’s meant that the book has been subject to multiple instances of banning and redaction in schools and libraries. What does it take to convince yourself that banning a book about censorship is a good idea? Smh…

But not everyone’s that silly, and plenty of very clever people have really loved Bradbury’s magnum opus. In 1954, Fahrenheit 451 won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award In Literature. Thirty years later, in 1984, it won the Prometheus “Hall Of Fame” award. And then again, twenty years after that, it won a “Retro” Hugo Award (one of only six Best Novel Retro Hugos ever given). Fahrenheit 451 has also been adapted a few times over. Bradbury himself published a stage-play version of the story in 1979, and (despite his apparent objection to mass media) helped develop an interactive computer version of the game based on the book in 1984. More recently, HBO released a television film of the novel, which revived interest in its timely message.



Anyway, here’s my tl;dr summary: a middle-aged straight white guy in a dystopian future burns books for a living, until he meets a seventeen-year-old hottie and decides to have a mid-life crisis. *shrugs* I know it’s not a popular opinion, but I really wasn’t that fussed on it. I think Fahrenheit 451 is great for high schoolers, and its premise is fascinating, but unfortunately the writing itself just doesn’t live up to the hype. I’ll the shelving this one on my good-to-have-read-so-I-don’t-have-to-pretend-I-did-anymore shelf, and moving right along.

P.S. Almost everyone knows this already, but I figured I’d tack it on to the end here, just in case you missed it: Fahrenheit 451 got its title from a conversation Bradbury had with a fire-fighter about the temperature at which book paper burns. There was a bit of a miscommunication, though; 451 degrees Fahrenheit is actually the temperature at which paper spontaneously ignites (i.e., starts to burn without exposure to a flame). Book burning, of the type depicted in Bradbury’s story, actually occurs at a much lower temperature. But why let the truth get in the way of a good title, eh? I got more cool bookish trivia here, if you want to check it out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Fahrenheit 451:

  • “If you haven’t read it,you better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Makes kids hate reading!” – j busby
  • “Only got half way through, was a downer burned books?” – KAREN K. FOOTE
  • “Literary sorts probably jerk off to books like this, but frankly it was just disjointed, poorly-constructed, lazy plagiarism of “1984”. Reads like an elementary student wrote it, to be frank.” – James Potter
  • “this is probably the worst book ever. not only is it horrible, the plot is awful. they are wasting their time burning other books when this is the book they should burning. would not recommend this to anyone” – Alex
  • “Very much the American 1984… and I don’t mean that in a good way. While Orwell’s work is subtle, entertaining, intelligent and incredibly powerful, Fahrenheit 451 spoon feeds you it’s message like a patronising primary school teacher.
    
It leaves no room for interpretation or thought and comes across as a 14 year old’s attempt to write something clever, rather than bringing forth any original or interesting insight. Worse than this though, it fails to be entertaining, and being entertaining, even in a novel with a message (even one as simple as “doing bad things is bad”, which is what 451’s amounts to) should be the primary aim.
    
The writing style is convoluted and childish, the story containing zero original concepts, and the whole thing is just rather uninspiring. I strongly suspect the only reason this book gained so much attention is because of the nationality of its author, as it is perhaps the only American title tackling government in a way unrelated to race or sexism.

    

In short, if you’re considering reading this, don’t. Bradbury is to Orwell what a wet turd is to a filet mignon, so go with the latter. If you’ve already read Orwell’s works then don’t bother with 451, it doesn’t even verge on the same calibre.” – Amazon Customer

  • “There was writing throughout the entire book” – Taylor
  • “This book sucks so much. It is the worst, most pretentious piece of crap I have ever read. I had to read it for school and I couldn’t even finish this poorly written atrocious piece of crap. If this book had a face, I’d punch it in the balls. Zero stars.” – Tyra Howell

The Call Of The Wild – Jack London

Look at this pristine edition of The Call Of The Wild! I treated myself to a brand-new copy from a local indie bookstore. It’s another one that’s really tough to find second-hand, for some reason. This combo edition also includes White Fang, but I decided right at the outset that I wasn’t going to read that unless The Call Of The Wild was super-good and not too distressing. See, normally I’m not allowed to read books with dogs because I’m not equipped to deal with their inevitable death (why do authors love killing off dogs?!). With gritted teeth, I picked up Jack London’s best-known work…

I was right to be apprehensive. I’ll say this right at the outset: do not go into this book thinking it’s a heart-warming tale about a puppy who goes camping. Every page has dogs attacking humans, humans attacking dogs, dogs attacking each other… wahhhh! I know there are a lot of clever metaphors and allegories buried in the story, but that’s no fucking comfort to a dog-lover. Thankfully it’s very short (even shorter than Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde!), only 84 pages of torture. (Spoiler: I did not go on to read White Fang. I’ve quite had my fill of violence against animals, thank you.)

The Call Of The Wild is billed as an adventure novel, set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. London had spent a lot of time in that area himself; he once said “it was in the Klondike I found myself”. He stayed just long enough to get himself a nasty case of scurvy, which was quite common at the time (believe it or not, fresh produce was hard to come by in those Arctic winters, so workers usually missed their 2-and-5-a-day). Still, the experience made a real impression, and gave London enough material to write his book.

When he got back to California, he pitched his story to the San Francisco Bulletin, but they told him that “interest in Alaska has subsided in an amazing degree” and rejected him outright. He persisted, though, and ended up writing The Call Of The Wild in four installments for The Saturday Evening Post. They paid him $750 for his trouble, and he then accepted a further $2000 from Macmillan, who published it in book form in 1903. Nuts to the Bulletin editors who turned him down, because it hasn’t been out of print since.



The story opens in California, where the central character – Buck, a pampered St Bernard-Scotch Shepherd – is stolen and sold into service as an Alaskan sled dog. Sled dogs were in high demand during the Gold Rush. To even reach the Klondike, miners had to navigate what was called “Dead Horse Pass” (charming), so named for the many carcasses that had piled up along the route. The poor horsies couldn’t handle the steep ascents and the harsh climate, so strong dogs with thick fur were called into replace them.

Buck is forced to fight for survival in his new environment, and not just in the metaphorical draw-upon-your-inner-strength kind of way. The humans charged with his care starve him, keep him in a cage, and beat him senseless, teaching him what he calls “the law of the club” (yes, I’m already crying).

When he’s sold on again, this time to dispatchers who take him to the Klondike, he learns from the other dogs how to survive the cold nights and rugged terrain. He ends up beating the leader in a fight (gahhh, stop it!), and he assumes his position as the head of the pack. Success ain’t all it’s cracked up to be though, because he proves himself so valuable that he’s sold on into tougher circumstances, and then sold into tougher circumstances again. This is one corporate ladder you do not want to climb.



Finally, Buck encounters a decent human – John Thornton – and he is nursed back to health. He follows Thornton and his team as they pan for gold, but he gets to run around and explore his new home in the woods for himself. He makes friends with a local wolf pack (awww!), but always return home to camp because he’s come to love his new human (double awww!). You’d think London would end it there, everyone’s happy, but NOPE! One day, Buck returns to find his beloved human murdered by a local Native American tribe. Incensed, he goes on a violent killing spree of his own, taking his vengeance and scaring the pants off the survivors. Lacking other options, Buck joins the wolf pack full-time, answering (here it comes) the call of the wild.

The book was enormously popular upon publication (dear me, why?). Macmillan’s first print run of 10,000 copies sold out immediately. And that popularity has continued through to the present, where London’s work is still taught in schools and he’s earned himself a place in the American canon. The success of The Call Of The Wild is what prompted him to write White Fang: “I’m going to reverse the process,” he said, “instead of devolution… I’m going to give the evolution, the civilization of a dog.” That’s why the works are so often sold in a single volume. Perhaps White Fang is where I’d find the happy ending I was hoping for Buck, but I don’t trust London anymore.



The Call Of The Wild was also fairly controversial, because London had the gall to anthropomorphise a house pet. Critics said he was a “nature faker” (ooh, burn!) for attributing human feelings to a dog. But really, London was just calling upon the oldest form of storytelling, our fables and fairy-stories that commonly attribute feelings and speech to animals, to send the reader some greater message or moral. In this case, it would seem that London’s message was Capitalism + Industrialisation = Bad. Buck had to be forced to give up his creature comforts, but once he does that his instinct takes over and he returns to a more “natural” way of life. He shows us that civilisation is a thin veneer, easily broken, and animals (including humans) are wild and primal at their core. He inverts the coming-of-age tropes, and calls upon a lot of epic and hero archetypes, with Buck being unmasked (rather than civilised) by his journey. London may have ripped out my heart, but it would seem he was damn clever in the way he did it.

I’ve got a pretty strong stomach, on the whole, but my soft spot for dogs made The Call Of The Wild a fucking difficult read. I can appreciate what London was doing, but for me this book was right up there with A Clockwork Orange on the confronting scale, perhaps even exceeding it. Really, its only saving grace was that it was so short! I’m not sure I could have coped with much more. It was beautifully written in parts, the scene-setting was incredibly evocative, but why couldn’t London have tortured oysters or skunks or something instead? Dog-lovers, beware: this is not the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Call Of The Wild:

  • “This book gives some insight on the golf rush days in Alaska and some of the hardships. Also it is the first book about the feelings of a dog.” – spike1
  • “It’s bad to me i don’t like it at all people dead
Its crazy right yeah ik man ik man” – Amazon Customer
  • “The font is 9 pt or less. The story is timeless, I just don’t want to go blind trying to read it to my grand kids.” – bad smell Mel
  • “All Jack London fans will like this one” – Don Boddeker
  • “Fun novel and dogbook. Want pictures.” – Maiden of Honour
  • “Wow, 114 years old, no apocalypse,no zombies, no EMP. Just a story about a dog, and what a dog! Awesome !” – Kindle Customer
  • “Bought for my nerdy daughter.” – Derby
  • “Down loaded the audio books for the dogs while i am away. They love it!” – Amazon Customer
  • “Excellent short novel about gold rush days in Alaska. While a jr. high student could read it without difficulty, it still was a wonderful introduction to Alaska before a cruise there.” – Bruce Wolf
  • “Teeny tiny print is pathetic.” – Robert Phillips
  • “now i know why they say this book is read by so many inmates,they have to change their way of living when they are put in jail” – toni moon


What Is The Great American Novel?

I’ve reviewed a handful of American classics for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and I’ll be reviewing a few more yet. Whenever I start researching one of them, I’ll always come across a think-piece or a comment thread somewhere debating whether or not the book should be considered the Great American Novel. I’ve referenced the concept a few times myself, but never really addressed the elephant in the room: what is the Great American Novel, exactly? Where did it come from, and why is it so contentious? Now seems as good a time as any to take a look…

What Is The Great American Novel? - Text Overlaid on Image of American Flags - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Origins of The Great American Novel as a Concept

It was, of course, a dead white guy who first coined the phrase “the great American novel”. John William DeForest published an essay in 1868, a few years after the end of the Civil War, in which he defined it as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. America, at the time was a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself; the North and South were barely reconciled, and it was a time of self-conscious tumult in the American identity. American literature was also relatively new; the colonials had written books, of course, but the development of a unique and entirely separate literary tradition in the New World took over a century. So, DeForest’s search for a single book that unified and reflected an all-encompassing American experience was laughably ambitious.

He didn’t have much luck, by the way. Even by his own standard, DeForest said that the composition of the Great American Novel had not yet been achieved. Harriet Beecher Stowe came close, he said, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but didn’t quite get the gong. He was also pretty dismissive of the next-closest option, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. As far as DeForest was concerned, the definitive Great American Novel couldn’t be far off – he had no idea we’d still be arguing over his little thought exercise 150 years later…


How Do We Define the Great American Novel?

We’ve spent a great deal of the intervening century-and-a-half debating DeForest’s idea, and proposing our own definitions and criteria by which we could judge the Great American Novel. Journals and periodicals over the rest of the 19th century featured countless essays by other writers keen to expand on his proposition. The subject became a safe retreat on slow news days for newspapers of the 20th century. And now, we have the internet, which is littered with listicles and slide-shows of the contenders, and more than one “hot take” on why the Great American Novel could never really exist anyway (party poopers).

Of course, there’s no ultimate authority to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, so there’s plenty of fodder to keep us arguing for another hundred and fifty years or so (assuming America lasts that long… eeek!). Above and beyond the criteria we’ve proposed to define a classic book (literary merit and so forth), here are a few suggested definitions we could use to determine what is the Great American Novel.

“The novel is a true and honest reflection of the age.”

Put another way, the Great American Novel must perfectly capture the spirit and culture of a given period in the United States. This one is interesting, because it leaves scope for a different Great American Novel for each era. Examples might include The Great Gatsby, which captured the Jazz Age, or On The Road, reflecting the Beat Generation.

“The novel had a significant cultural impact.”

Now, this is a wily one, because who’s to say what’s “significant”? Heck, who’s to say what’s “cultural impact”? It’s one of those I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it definitions, which can be problematic. So far, the best we can do is rely upon a general agreement regarding “significance” among academics and general readers alike. To Kill A Mockingbird would probably pass the test, given how it revolutionised America’s understanding of social justice and race.

“It must encompass the entire nation, and not be too consumed with a single region.”

This is a lofty goal. It’s one worth considering, of course, but I can’t think of a single contender that actually manages it. The States, united as they may be, are incredibly varied and diverse. Is it really possible for a single book to encompass them all? (If you can think of one, please suggest it in the comments!)

“Its author must have been born in the U.S., or have adopted the country as his or her own.”

Initially, I bristled at this one. It seemed too emblematic of the cultural imperialism perpetuated by America over the last century or so. It would necessarily exclude writers like Vladimir Nabokov, who was Russian-born but authored Lolita, undoubtedly a contender for the Great American Novel by other measures. Surely, the content of the work should bear more weight than the passport of the writer. Perhaps it would be better to say that the author must be deeply knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the “average” U.S. citizen (if there is such a thing).

“The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language of American people, and capture their experience.”

That’s better! By this measure, books like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn fit the bill perfectly. It highlights the use of vernacular, and furthers the cause of using fiction as a source of historical record. Plus, it recognises the uniqueness of the American experience and aspirations, which are undoubtedly different to those found and felt elsewhere.

“It has to be read by or familiar to a large number of Americans.”

This one seems fair enough. I think the addition of the familiarity element is important: these days, relatively few Americans have read Moby Dick in full, for instance, but I guarantee almost all of them would recognise the title. They’d probably even be able to give you a brief, largely accurate, summary of the plot and its themes. That’s a level of saturation that’s hard to ignore.



But, if we’re determined to be cynical, we could conclude that it’s impossible to define or determine what is the Great American Novel. A.O. Scott once proposed that the Great American Novel was effectively a myth, likening its existence to urban legends and conspiracies:

“… the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster – or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people – not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation – claim to have seen.”

A.O. Scott (2006)

All respect to Scott, but even though we all know Big Foot probably doesn’t exist, we still spend hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars searching for him every year. If the debate over what constitutes the Great American Novel keeps people buying and reading books, I’ll go down stoking the flames of this debate.

The Great American Novels

It’s practically impossible to give an exhaustive list of contenders for the Great American Novel. You’d have to scan all four corners of the internet, and fall down so many rabbit holes, to find every single title that’s ever been floated as a possibility. So here are a few that seem to crop up more often than most:

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even though DeForest, the daddy of this whole debate, wrote off The Scarlet Letter, it’s still widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of the Great American Novel. It’s certainly highly recognisable, it’s had significant cultural impact (as judged by its many adaptations and call-backs in subsequent art), it recorded a unique period in American history (puritanical New England), and as far as we know it was a fairly accurate representation of the era.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick is another uniquely American novel – even though, ironically, very little of the action took place on American soil. The story of Ahab and his white whale can be read as a metaphor for just about anything: democracy, man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with nature (and, more recently, climate change), a critique of capitalism, a critique of slavery, and so on. Plus, it has become culturally ubiquitous, imitated and appropriated by everyone from artists to politicians to academics.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway once said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”. As I was reading it, I could see that Papa was right: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, plain to see are the origins of subsequent literary icons like The Catcher In The Rye. Plus, it is one of the best renderings of American vernacular that I have ever read. Most admirably (depending who you ask), Twain managed to simultaneously exhibit the racist history of the American South, while critiquing it and proposing a new way forward.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

As I mentioned earlier, The Great Gatsby has become synonymous with our recollection of the Jazz Age in America. It’s likely the most aspirational of these contenders for the Great American Novel, highlighting the American desire for wealth and success and all its trappings, as well as the sordid underbelly of the “American dream”. That said, could we really consider it a reflection of a universally American experience? Probably not. But its fans and adherents are so damn vocal, we’ll probably never be able to cross it off the list entirely.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Grapes Of Wrath depicts a particularly dark time in America’s history, the Great Depression in the dust bowl of the South. Steinbeck also focused on the experiences of the working class, the “Average Joes” (or Average Joads, as it were), an experience not often explored in the other contenders listed here. It is, to some minds, not quite as iconic as books like Moby Dick or Gatsby, but it does an incredible job of recording and reflecting a uniquely American language and experience in ways that other contenders lack.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another American experience not often captured in other contenders for the Great American Novel: that of the disaffected youth. Holden Caulfield has become perhaps one of the most iconic teenage characters of all time, even beyond the American literary tradition, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a definition of coming-of-age literature that doesn’t cite The Catcher In The Rye somewhere along the line. Sounds like a significant cultural impact to me!



On The Road – Jack Kerouac

On The Road - Jack Kerouac - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another period – this time, the Beat Generation – another definitive novel. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road stands out among its contemporaries. It’s more than just a road-trip novel, more than just a sordid exhibition of the beatniks and their free-loving drink-and-drug-fuelled adventures. It’s an exploration, once again, of American longing, aspiration, and search for meaning. It also has much to say regarding waste and futility in a changing world. Plus, best of all, we can be pretty damn sure of its accuracy in depicting an American experience, being taken – as it was – pretty much directly from Kerouac’s diaries, a very faithful roman-a-clef.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just last year, Americans voted To Kill A Mockingbird to be their best-loved novel in the Great American Read survey, so its popularity, recognisability, and endurance are pretty much unquestionable. It remains a fixture on school reading lists, likely for its heady combination of coming-of-age, social justice, and earnest idealism tempered by harsh reality. To be honest, I can’t think of a single definition of the Great American Novel that it doesn’t pass in some measure; it’s one of the strongest contenders to date.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To Kill A Mockingbird might be the general readership’s favoured choice, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved came out on top in a New York Times survey of 125 writers. Its rise to canonical status has been remarkably quick; just 20 years after its initial publication, it was already considered to be a staple of university reading lists, and Morrison is now listed alongside Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain as one of the greatest American writers of all time. Its perspective and its story are unique in this list, and that in itself highlights the problems with our current understanding of the Great American Novel (more on those in a minute).



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Granted, this might be a selfish inclusion, because I personally think that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a far better book and a far better reflection of the Jazz Age than stupid Gatsby (and I suspect it’s been overlooked because of the entrenched sexist attitudes that lead us to value the stories of men above those of women, but that’s a rant for another day). But I stand by it, because I’ve got a highly-respected vote in my favour: Edith Wharton, an incredible American writer in her own right, called it the Great American Novel. It’s an honest and true reflection of a perspective on the Jazz Age that has often been marginalised (that of women who empowered themselves through sexuality), and surely that counts for more than its comparative lack of popularity.

Problems With Defining The Great American Novel

Surely you can already see the problem here? On this list of ten contenders, only three were authored by women, and only one by a woman of colour. That’s not a result of my own biases, I promise you. Every list of Great American Novel contenders is very white, and very male.

Ironically, the whole concept began with the work of a woman (DeForest said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the closest he had seen to the Great American Novel, remember?), and yet we’ve historically excluded female authors and female perspectives from these discussions. This goes double – triple! – for people of colour (encompassing Native Americans, African Americans, and later migrants). And there’s a whole stack of other marginalised experiences that rarely get a look in, too…

When we exclude marginalised authors, we exclude marginalised experiences from the narrative, and if that continues we will never have a Great American Novel that is truly representative of an American experience. Part of defining the Great American Novel for the future is redefining what constitutes an American experience, and who belongs in the picture.

It’s not as if there’s a lack of options! Consider books like The Color Purple, The Joy Luck Club, The Book Of Unknown Americans, Americanah, An American Marriage – all of them depict a uniquely American experience, outside the narrow defines of white male privilege.




Still, even with these problems and a marked lack of diversity, the ideal of the Great American Novel will probably never die. In fact, one could argue it’s more important now than ever, in a time of major shifts in an American identity (shifts in culture are always reflected in literature, sooner or later). What do you think constitutes the Great American Novel? Can you come up with any contenders I haven’t listed here? Tell me your ideas in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

I’ve got a little surprise for you, Keeper-Upperers: this review is actually a two-fer! The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the book from The List, and most of this post will focus on that story, but when I picked up this Wordsworth Classic edition, I realised it actually contained The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer as well, so I decided to read them both. As per the blurb on the back, “sharing so much in background and character, these two stories, the best of Twain, indisputably belong together in one volume” – and, as it turns out, in one review 😉

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

The introduction to this edition says that Huck Finn is quite inconsistent as a character, and Tom Sawyer is a “simpler affair” to read. Plus, it comes first in the chronology of events, so aside from anything else it makes sense to read it first. Twain published The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer in 1876, and it was initially a complete flop (all the best ones are!) but it went on to become the best-selling of any of his works during his lifetime. The story is set in the 1840s, in the fictional town of St Petersburg (which is quite obviously based on Twain’s own hometown: Hannibal, Missouri).

I’ll resist the temptation to break down the entire plot in detail for you (otherwise this two-fer review would end up longer than the novels), but suffice it to say that the young protagonist – Tom Sawyer – has a whole bunch of small-town adventures. He wags school, tries to start gangs like his heroes from adventure books, falls in “love” with a girl from his school and breaks her heart, the whole nine yards. The character of Huckleberry Finn (“Huck”) appears often, usually as a kind of side-kick in The Tom Sawyer Show.

I noticed reading The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer that Twain presents the reader with a really unsettling juxtaposition of innocence (see: small-town adventures, as described) and very adult themes. Tom Sawyer witnesses a murder, many in the town experience abject poverty, a couple of the adults are dreadful alcoholics, plus… well, y’know, slavery. These elements – innocence and darkness, side-by-side – really reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suppose that’s hardly surprising; I’d wager that almost all Southern literature has its roots in Twain’s stories. After all, our mate Hemingway once said that “all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain” (and, yes, he was technically referring to Huckleberry Finn, but I think it still holds up).




Tom Sawyer is a good lead-up to The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn in terms of getting you acquainted with the time period and the language. I’m going to acknowledge right here that, yes, there are a lot of racial epithets – some folks are cool with that, some aren’t, it’s up to you to decide for yourself. And on a related note, I must confess it took me an embarrassingly long time to work out that “Injun Joe” actually meant INDIAN Joe (i.e., Native American)…

The introduction was right: The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer is indeed a simpler affair, and I knocked it over fairly quickly. Despite the adult themes, it’s basically a straightforward boy-adventure story. Huck Finn, on the other hand…

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

As much as he was Tom Sawyer’s side-kick in the first book, Huck is definitely the star of the show in this review. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was published eight years after The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and represents – in my mind, anyway – a huge leap forward in terms of Twain’s craft. It was the first major American novel to be written entirely in vernacular English (i.e., in the slang and local colour of the region), and is now considered to be one of the Great American Novels.

I know we generally shit all over vernacular writing and whinge that it makes stories harder to read, but Huck Finn actually felt a lot more readable than Tom Sawyer, like Twain had finally hit his stride. The writing was far more engaging and immersive, and I didn’t struggle with the vernacular at all. If you really hate that style of writing, then sure, give this one a miss, but don’t make the mistake of lumping it in the same basket as D.H. Lawrence and his cronies. If you can handle the Southern accents in the movie version of Gone With The Wind, you won’t have any trouble with The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.




And here’s a cool piece of literary history for you: Twain actually composed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by hand on notepaper, over the course of several years, and the original manuscript still exists today! On it, we can see how Twain’s use of language and vernacular evolved as he was writing it. The famous opening line originally read “You will not know about me”, which Twain later changed to “You do not know about me”, before finally settling on the final version which we now all know so well:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

So, as you can see, Huck tells us of his adventures himself, and they’re a direct sequel to The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Now, our mate Tom takes a pretty sharp left turn; in his book, he’d seemed like an innocent ragamuffin who let the pirate adventure stories he read feed his overactive imagination, but in the first few chapters of Huck Finn he comes across as an out-and-out psychopath. I really didn’t like him much at all after that; he literally tried to start a murder cult, and I’m not about that life.

We get to learn more about Huck Finn, finally, and he is infinitely more likeable (I mean, he’s not perfect, but I was rooting for him just the same). Huck is about thirteen or fourteen, his father is the town drunk and they’re incredibly poor, so it’s tough for the kid to fit in. In his adventures with Tom at the end of the previous book, Huck had come into a large sum of money, so the townsfolk suddenly take an interest in his upbringing and welfare. He goes to live with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson for a while, and they try to beat some Jesus into him, but he escapes their clutches… only to wind up being kidnapped by his drunken a-hole father.




Huck manages to keep his Pap’s dirty hands off the money, but still has a bit of a rough trot with the old man. He’s locked in an isolated cabin in the woods, subjected to bouts of extreme violence, and on the whole things are looking pretty bad… but Huck is an enterprising kid, and he goes all-out with an elaborate escape, literally faking his own death. I mean, sheesh! I tried to run away a few times as a kid, too, but I never took it that far.

On the run, Huck encounters Jim, a huge (but very polite) black man who was once the slave of Miss Watson. It turns out most of the townsfolk assume that Jim killed Huck, and he was scared that Miss Watson would sell him down the river, so he’s done a runner too. Huck has to do a bit of mental gymnastics to overcome the guilt he’s been conditioned to feel for helping a runaway slave, but he comes to care deeply for Jim and they have a lot in common, so they become fellow travellers on the Mississippi River. They head towards a town in Illinois (a free state) where Jim won’t have to live looking over his shoulder.

Now, opinion is very divided as to whether this is a “racist” book, even above and beyond Twain’s liberal use of the n-word. Many academics posit that Twain intended The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn to read as a scathing satire of entrenched social attitudes, especially racism, but there are plenty of people who disagree. They say that Twain not only used racist language, but relied on racial stereotypes to get his point across. For my part, as I read it, there’s obviously a lot of structural racism involved and some white-saviour elements that grossed me out, but Huck and Jim’s relationship seemed to be very genuine, mutual, affectionate, and respectful. On several occasions, Twain explicitly showed Huck working hard to overcome the attitudes he had been socially conditioned to hold, and behave in such a way that contradicted the racism of the time. As such, I don’t think we should hold up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the last word on defeating racism in America, but simultaneously it seems that it was rather progressive in its own time, and it’s still a book from which we could certainly learn more.

“A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience… [Huck Finn is] a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collusion and conscience suffers a defeat.”

Mark Twain

Anyway, back to the fun stuff: Huck and Jim have a series of adventures and mishaps as they travel along the Mississippi. Towards the end, Jim gets captured by a family who believe there is a substantial reward on his head (being, as he is, a runaway slave). Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer, and the two of them make a (very, laughably, elaborate) plan to set Jim free. It involves secret messages, a hidden tunnel, a rope ladder smuggled in Jim’s food (he was kept on the ground floor, but okay), snakes, and a bunch of other stuff that Tom had read about in adventure books. When they finally get Jim out, Tom gets shot in the leg and Jim remains with him, at risk of being recaptured, rather than taking the opportunity to escape alone.

(This is all pretty typical of the adventures that Huck and Jim have together, by the way, and there are a lot of ’em.)




Still, it’s all resolved rather quickly. It turns out that Jim’s “owner” (ugh) had died a couple weeks prior, and granted him freedom in her will. Huck’s father is dead, so he can return home safely. He and Tom set off back to St Petersburg, and Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story. He knows there’s a plan afoot to adopt and “civilise” him, so he plans to flee west (to “Indian Territory”) if they try it.

As much as Tom Sawyer’s adventures reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn oddly evoked another more contemporary book: The Catcher In The Rye. A lot of the same elements are there: a lost, wayward boy; strong characterisation through coarse language and slang; and (of course) a long history of being challenged and banned. As early as 1885, libraries had banned Huck Finn from their shelves. The Boston Transcript newspaper that year ran a story that read:

“The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiencing not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”

Boston Transcript (1885)

Twain reportedly then wrote a letter to his editor, saying:

“Apparently, the Concord Library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums’. This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”

Mark Twain (1885) – funny bastard, eh?

The controversy persists to this day, and it ties into the whole is-the-book-racist debate. Huck Finn was the fifth most challenged book in the U.S. throughout the 1990s, with most objections citing its frequent use of the n-word and other racial slurs. Some publishers have attempted to mollify concerned parents and teachers by, for instance, publishing editions that cut out or replace the offending language. These attempts always backfire (duh), serving only to stoke the fires of the controversy. There’s no “winning” this debate, I tell you…

There is a whole world of really interesting articles and discussions out there, and if you’re curious you should definitely take a look. A lot of people who are far cleverer than me have posted some really insightful analysis about Twain’s treatment of race, identity, class, and the American South. It makes for fascinating reading, whether you (like me) have just read The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn for the first time, or whether it’s your life-long favourite. As for the book itself, I’d say steer clear if you’re sensitive to issues of race and discriminatory language, but if you can stomach that stuff reasonably well, you should give it a go. If you read it once in high-school. but haven’t picked it up since, it’s definitely one that’s worth revisiting. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a nice entree, a simpler story of some interest, but The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the main course, Twain’s pièce de résistance.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:

  • “I THOUGHT THAT THE STORY WAS GOING GREAT AT THE BEGINNING AND IT WAS BUT I JUST STARTED TO GET BORED” – Paul Robert Carroll
  • “Warning, will tell kids about some of your tricks.” – Regular Buyer
  • “Book isn’t normal sized” – Emily S
  • “Mark Twain didn’t write many bad ones.” – Thomas E. Bracking
  • “I’d talk about the plot but I don’t want to get shot!” – Solong
  • “Haven’t read them yet, but I’m sure I will like them because Mark Twain is incredibly entertaining for a dead guy.” – M. Waters
  • “i got this book as a gift to my ex a bit before we broke up.” – David A Medina
  • “Dude no words only pics a few pics 4 me. I hated it. This best way 2 read this is 2 smash whatever device u r using” – Ayden mccormick
  • “I was forced to read this for school and it was a complete waste of time I would much rather be reading Lolita or listening to one direction” – Felicia Hill


The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton


The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.

The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.


Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

 

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I’ve been looking forward to The Bell Jar for a long, long time. Unfortunately, it’s another book that’s practically impossible to find in secondhand bookstores. No one – and I mean no one – seems to want to part with their copy! I checked in every secondhand store, market stall, and charity shop I passed for over a year, with no luck… and then (get this), one day, a dear friend was searching manically for a last-minute gift for me, and she managed to find a copy in the secondhand book store closest to my house. It had come in that very day. She got this gorgeous Faber edition for a song, and it is honestly one of the best presents I have ever received. Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes?

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published just weeks before her suicide – and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the tone of the book. I know trigger warnings are controversial, but surely we can all agree that if there’s any book in the world that deserves one, it’s The Bell Jar? It’s such a stark depiction of depression and suicidality, it could really bring up some stuff for you if you’re not prepared. Readers also widely regard it as a roman à clef, because the main character’s descent into mental illness so closely mirrors Plath’s own struggles. She pretty much just changed the names of people and places (not unlike Jack Kerouac’s On The Road… well, in that regard only).

The story is set in 1953. It opens with a young woman – Esther Greenwood – completing a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City, exactly as Plath did (I’m not going to point out every similarity though, because that would get very old very quickly – just trust me that Esther = Sylvia, kay?). Esther had high hopes for the internship, but it’s been nothing like what she expected, and she’s more perplexed than enamoured with the glamourous big-city lifestyle. She returns home, in low spirits, and her mother piles on, telling her that she was rejected by the prestigious writing program she’d set her sights on entering.

So, Esther can’t figure out what the fuck to do with herself. She tries to read Finnegan’s Wake, but gives up on that quick smart. She thinks about marriage and motherhood, but decides she’d rather throw up in her mouth and swallow it. She looks into all of the socially-acceptable “woman jobs” available to her (like stenography), but they bore the pants off her. Given her options, it’s hardly a surprise that she winds up extremely depressed.


Her mother takes her to see a psychiatrist, who apparently got his education from one half-hearted read of One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest. He gives her a horrific round of ECT, and she (quite rightly) refuses to return. His “treatment” makes everything worse instead of better, culminating in a suicide attempt. Esther survives… barely.

Her mother has her committed, and she finally receives some actual therapy from a non-idiot, including properly-administered ECT, after which her condition greatly improves. She takes many steps towards rebuilding her life and her mental health, and she says she feels as though the “bell jar” of her depression has been lifted (thus, the title). The book ends with her talking about her fear that the bell jar would again descend one day – it’s kind of ambiguous, but also beautiful.

I had such high expectations of The Bell Jar, after years of hearing how fantastic it was, and I was convinced there was no way it could possibly live up to the hype… but, of course, it fucking did. The prose was so damn beautiful, I was almost angry. I started wondering why I should bother writing or reading anything else in the world, when something this good already exists. I wanted to throw my gorgeous Faber edition across the room… but, of course, I couldn’t, because I was clutching it so hard.

The Bell Jar touches on many major themes and issues, but not in a way that feels Loftily Literary(TM) – it all just emerges naturally from the story. Take, for instance, the questions Plath raises about the role of women in society, and the constraints of gender roles for women in mid-20th century America. Esther feels the usual pressure to be a “good girl” and become both self-sufficient and married with children, but she lacks the resources and opportunities to become truly independent. Then, on top of that, Plath has a lot to say about mental health treatment – especially for women – in that era, showing us the good, the bad, and the ugly of how it could all unfold.


Unfortunately, Plath’s real-life story has a much more tragic end; she died by suicide barely a month after publication of The Bell Jar in the U.K. It wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1971, as per the wishes of her husband and mother. I think her death is all the more tragic for how it’s impacted our reading of her work. We’re so obsessed by the autobiographical nature of it, especially in light of her death, that we seem to overlook the artistic triumph of this (ultimately fictional) book. We miss the proverbial wood for the trees, or whatever.

I read one review that said Plath’s suicide so soon after publication meant that there have been “few innocent readings” of The Bell Jar, which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it. It’s practically impossible to read this book without, on some level, searching for insights into Plath’s real life and death. Still, for the sake of art, we should really try.

Even though The Bell Jar was her only novel, there’s still plenty more Plath in my future; she’s widely credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry, more than any of her contemporaries, so I’ll be seeking out her collections, not to mention her diaries and letters. Her work is hardly a barrel of laughs, but if you’re in a mentally stable place and equipped to cope with what it brings up for you, it is so, so worth it. I one-hundred-percent recommend The Bell Jar, one of the few books I’ve ever read that truly exceeds the hype.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bell Jar:

  • “Every girl should love this by age 15 and be embarrassed that they did by age 35.” – Jonathan AW Edwards
  • “What light-hearted fun this was! A comedy romp from beginning to end. Highly recommended if you need cheering up.” – Katie Krackers
  • “There was sticky brown stuff all over the book including on the inside.” – Lilian
  • “Does what it says on the tin.” – Carl Sanders
  • “Noice” – Jacob Bradley
  • “Overly sensitive privileged white girl rejects a guy, doesn’t get into the writing course she wants. Tries to read James Joyce, thinks about death, tries to kill herself. Has a bunch of shock treatment.
    Maybe you have to be young and angsty to appreciate it.
    I am not young, and successfully medicated. Even it my most angsty, this would have been a drag.
    Bonus points for language usage.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It was a good 47 minutes” – Amazon Customer
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