Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 3)

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here we are, Keeper-Upperers: face-to-face with my reading challenge white whale. Anyone who’s been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while knows the story of how I’ve started and abandoned Pride And Prejudice no fewer than six times. Never again! I finally sat down with Austen’s romantic novel, one of the most popular books in English literature, and I’m pleased to say we’ve worked out our issues and reconciled. Woohoo!

Pride And Prejudice (original working title First Impressions) was first published on 28 January 1813. Since then, it’s sold over 20 million copies, and saturated our public consciousness to the point that it’s now considered the origin story for many common archetypes that we still see in fiction today. In 2003, nearly two centuries after its release, the BBC conducted a poll to determine the UK’s “best-loved book”, and Pride And Prejudice came in second (it lost out to Lord Of The Rings). More locally, a poll of over 15,000 Australian readers in 2008 saw them vote it into first place on a list of the 101 best books ever written. So, yeah, it’s still got some currency.

The introduction to this edition is long – over 40 pages! I considered skipping it, but I persevered. Some of it was interesting, some of it wasn’t, so I guess it all comes out in the wash. The highlights for me were learning that Charlotte Brontë wasn’t a fan of Austen’s work (good trivia!), and this little gem of a summary:

“It is indeed possible to call its relevance to the society of the time into question, for during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind.”

Introduction, Pride And Prejudice (page 7)

Also, I might be coming around to the idea of ignoring the footnotes. It pains me to admit it (because my husband is a strong advocate for skipping them, and I hate it when he’s right), but here we are. There are basically none in this edition of Pride And Prejudice, so I tried reading it without them and I felt like I didn’t miss anything I couldn’t pick up from context clues. Plus, the reading is all the more enjoyable for not having to flick back and forth all the time. Gosh, if only I’d come around to this way of thinking before now, maybe one of those earlier attempts might have worked out…



So, Pride And Prejudice begins with fuss-pot matriarch Mrs Bennet trying to persuade her husband to visit Mr Bingley, a rich and eligible bachelor who has just moved in up the road. Thus, the famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. After a bit of to-and-fro, Mr Bennet makes the visit, and it’s followed by an invitation for the family to attend a ball.

This family, one of the most famous in literature, consists of Mr & Mrs Bennet and their five daughters: Jane (the beauty), Lizzie (the smarty-pants), Mary (the plain loner), Kitty (the impressionable one), and Lydia (the… worldly one). They all trot off to this ball, as expected, and Mr Bingley is every bit as wonderful as they’d imagined. He takes a special interest in Jane, which sends everyone aflutter, and they start planning the wedding (that’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think).

Mr Bingley’s wingman, Mr Darcy, is a whole other story. He’s twice as rich, but not half as nice. He negs Lizzie at this party, and then at another, and then again at another. Pride And Prejudice is basically the story of how a pick-up artist meets a feminist and falls in love. In fact, I think it might be the origin of the reformed-bad-boy trope, and by rights I should be rolling my eyes in disgust… but, like with Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the hidden sappy side of me took over for a minute and I let myself enjoy it.

(Also, spoiler alert: Darcy is the “proud” one, and Lizzie is the “prejudiced” one, but really neither of them are perfect in either regard.)



Anyway, some time later, Jane goes to visit Mr Bingley’s sister, under the guise of making new friends. In reality, she just wants to get a glimpse of her new man, pulling the old “Oh, I didn’t even know you’d be here!” trick. By her mother’s design, she gets caught in the rain and develops a rotten cold (why did all Victorian ladies have such terrible immune systems?), forcing her to stay a few days. At the Bingley’s, a whole lotta drama plays out: Lizzie visits, Darcy gets a boner, Miss Bingley gets jealous, and Jane drags out this convenient cold as long as she can to stay closer to the object of her affections.

Then Mr Collins (heir to the estate on which the Bennets live) pays a visit. The property is “entailed”, which I took to mean none of the Bennet girls could inherit unless one of them married this dude. And he’s well aware of their desperation (gross). He figures he can take his pick of the young ladies, and they won’t have a choice if they want to keep the family home (super-gross). He crosses Jane off the list, even though she’s the hot one, because he doesn’t want to cut Mr Bingley’s grass (yes, a man’s supposed ownership of a woman is to be respected more than her own autonomy, HELLO PATRIARCHY MY OLD FRIEND). Mr Collins sets his sights on Lizzie, and she (quite rightly) tells him to fuck off. He gets super butt-hurt, and runs away to marry someone else, which means as soon as Mr Bennet dies he can dump them all out on the street and take the house for himself. What a guy!

Anyway, while all this is going on, Lizzie makes a new friend in Mr Wickham. He’s dashing, and charming, but kind of a hound dog. He has a big ol’ cry about how Mr Darcy has caused him “hardship”, and Lizzie just falls for it hook, line, and sinker (yes, for the “smart one”, she can be surprisingly dumb). His pick-up-artistry be damned, she decides she doesn’t want a bar of Darcy anymore.



Then, out of the blue, the Bingleys skip town and Jane is devo. She tries following them to London, thinking she could reignite the spark and lure her lover back (bitch-don’t-chase-a-man!) but his sister snubs her and she’s cut off from them entirely. When Lizzie visits Mr Collins and his new wife, they shed some light on the situation: apparently, Mr Darcy convinced Mr Bingley not to marry Jane because her family was poor (and kind of bogan, or whatever the old-timey equivalent of bogan is). And, in another case of terrible timing, Mr Darcy picks this very moment to show up and declare his love for Lizzie. Of course, she tells him to fuck right off.

You’d think that’s a pretty irreparably damaged relationship right there, but Mr Darcy writes a letter with a Very Good Explanation for everything, and Lizzie’s all “Oh, okay then!”. The next time they meet, she’s all set to open her heart to love… but she’s promptly distracted by her younger sister, Lydia, running off with Mr Wickham, that dastardly hound-dog, and (wait for it) they’re not married! Clutch my pearls! There’s a lot of hand-wringing at the prospect of Lydia losing her virginity out of wedlock; Mr Collins literally said she’d be better off dead, which I thought was a bit much. But this piece of “terrible” news actually gave rise to my favourite line in all of Pride And Prejudice:

“On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill, that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, ‘Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? – A glass of wine; – shall I get you one? – You are very ill!”

Pride And Prejudice (page 294)

I mean, bringing me a glass of wine is definitely the way to win me over, so I can see why Lizzie went for him.

Anyway, Lizzie figures that Lydia’s supposed-disgrace means she’ll never see Mr Darcy again. I mean, if having a poor family was enough to put him off the idea of a marriage, having a harlot for a little sister has got to be some kind of romance death knell. But, to everyone’s surprise, Darcy steps the fuck up! He convinces Wickham to marry Lydia, “saving” her reputation, and pays off all his outstanding debts. Consider the day saved!



Bingley and Darcy come back to the ‘hood. Bingley’s seen the light, he proposes to Jane, and there is much rejoicing. Then, Darcy’s rich aunt starts sticking her nose in, worried that her favourite nephew is going to do something silly like marry a poor girl as well. Lizzie – as is her habit, by now – tells her to fuck off. Darcy proposes, she accepts, and everyone’s married and rich by the end. Happily ever after!

So, what did I think? Well, many things. Based on her reputation, I’d kind of expected Lizzie Bennet to be a bit more like Emma: disinterested in boys and marriage, bookish, strong-willed, self-determining. She is all of those things, I suppose, or almost, but not to the degree that I’d expected. I think my favourite Bennet was actually Lydia: the young, loud-mouthed, boy-crazy one. I feel like she would have been a dynamite sex-positive feminist on Twitter these days.

I’m also coming to think that Austen was the master of hiding really heavy themes in plain sight, cloaking them in the social mores of her time. For instance, she presented all the parents as symbolically powerful but ultimately ineffectual (Emma’s Dad was a whiny hypochondriac, and Mr & Mrs Bennet were messy drama queens who played favourites with their offspring). She also poked holes in the idea that wealth and social standing were desirable qualities (Emma’s kindest and most wonderful friends were the poorest social outcasts; Collins and Wickham, despite their good reputations and prospects, were both revealed to be pretty rotten in the end). Plus, she carefully breaks down the social/economic complexities of courtship and marriage in a way that really impresses me. There’s very little in her books about romantic love, really, but a lot about politics, power, class, and community.



Her treatment of marriage is actually less gendered than I’d initially assumed it would be, too. Many of her men do, in fact, find themselves in want of a wife, and for the same reasons of poverty and disadvantage that led women to seek husbands. Look at how, say, Wickham needs to marry a woman of means and respectability to cover his own debts and excuse his past misdeeds. I mean, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that women’s financial security was wholly dependent on men at that time (most women didn’t have independent legal rights or access to the inheritance laws that had benefited only men until the end of the 19th century), but Austen found other ways to give women agency and power in her stories.

So, having written this intricate and complex novel, what did Austen do next? Well, she made some dumb decisions (not to be mean, but seriously). She sold the copyright to Thomas Egerton for £110. She wanted £150, but he bargained her down. This, as I said, was a dumb decision. In owning the copyright, Egerton owned all of the risk of publication (a notoriously money-losing venture) but he also owned all of the profit when Pride And Prejudice went gangbusters. Jan Fergus did some clever maths a few years back, and she worked out that Egerton raked in £450 from the first two editions alone, while Austen got not a penny. It seems incredible that one of the most recognisable authors in the English language earned so little from her most popular work, and I think it’s an important cautionary tale for all the incredible women writers out there – own your shit, ladies!



In my reviews, this is where I’d typically list any adaptations of note, but for Pride And Prejudice there are just too damn many! And there are more released every single year. The enduring popularity of this story knows no bounds. A couple of my favourites include Bridget Jones’s Diary, which places the story in contemporary London, and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which is an unbelievably popular Austen-zombie-cannibal-ninja-ultraviolence mash-up. And, not satisfied to let the creatives have all the fun, scientists have got in on some Pride And Prejudice homages too. In 2010, a pheromone found in mouse urine was named “darcin”, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females (what an honour… kind of). And in 2016, a whole article in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases was dedicated to speculating as to the possible medical reasons the Bennets didn’t have any male children.

On the whole, I’m extremely glad I persisted with this classic. I think it’s another fine example of needing a book to come to you at the right time. I ended up enjoying Pride And Prejudice far more than I thought I would, and it’s one I’ll definitely re-read and re-visit in the future. I never thought I’d see myself say that out loud, let alone in print, but there you have it: life isn’t always what you’d expect, and neither are books.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Pride And Prejudice:

  • “Elizabeth Bennet is my spirit animal.” – Mary Hammond
  • “No thanks no review, this is stupid I don’t need to review a classic and I resent being held hostage to a review” – Jennifer Jones
  • “Y’all, errybody need to check out Lydia’s FINSTA. NSFW.” – Rebeca Reynolds
  • “Old nd good” – scott patterson
  • “Perfect gift for married co-worker” – KG
  • “Haven’t read it for 40 years, thought I’d try again. Still pretty good.” – Kindle Customer
  • “If you want to read a classic then this is for you but I wasn’t a fan. I’m not really big on romance and this seems heavy on romance a nd girl hates boy but then likes boy relationship centered.” – Mirashan Gregory
  • “This is the quintessential Day Time Soap Opera. 2 seasons or more neatly placed between the cover of a classic novel.” – Karen Marie review
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen rocks.” – Erin S.
  • “Pride and Prejudice is a very tiresome book. Much dialogue and very little action. Too much love and not enough Jesus.” – D
  • “Almost 400 pages of girls talking about which guy has more money and who they danced with. Not worth the paper it is written on.” – Amazon Customer
  • “A story of spoiled sisters and their attempts to be the bestest of the best in a time when how much money you had
matters more than love or morality.
 Seriously, the moral of the story seems to be, if a rich uncle comes calling, you best throw your daughters
at him until one sticks. Just a miserable, long story of some young women trying to find the right man to take care of them.” – JD Wohlever
  • “oh, this book is just awful. The author even insults her own people inside of this. There were several references to the British military that were insults back then; I forget what the are exactly. The characters themselves are never really developed in my opinion. The whole plot is this: girl sees rich guy and hates him because he is socially awKward. Rich guy actually loves girl and tries to tell her that. Girl mistreats the man because she’s blind to everything. Guy eventually has to spend money to get her to like him. They get married. End of story. This book is about a gold digger in all reality. It lacks anything that would make a book a classic. If you want to be driven insane, read this book.” – Not Trans Kieran

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan

Normally, when I read a book from The List, I come to it with completely fresh eyes, knowing nothing at all about its contents. Not so for The Thirty-Nine Steps – I saw the play when I was a teenager. That said, I really had only the vaguest memories of it, so I wasn’t that far from a blank slate. In fact, reading the book had me confused as all heck, because the only part I remembered was the ending… and it was completely different! I guess that makes it all a wash. Anyway, this edition of John Buchan’s best-known novel (billed on the front cover as a “world-famous spy thriller”) was published in 1965, so it looks charmingly retro. The first editions were published fifty years before that, and it’s still in circulation; it’s pretty damn popular by all accounts, having been named in the BBC’S Big Read poll as one of the UK’s “best loved novels” as recently as 2003.

Guess what inspired John Buchan to write The Thirty-Nine Steps? A duodenal ulcer, and his daughter’s ability to count. I’m not even kidding! Buchan was pretty crook with the whole ulcer thingy, and while he was convalescing at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, he sleepily watched his daughter count the stairs. That gave him the title of the book, and he set about writing what he called a “shocker”: an unlikely adventure that keeps the reader right on the precipice of not believing that the series of events could actually happen. It’s also the first appearance of his every-man all-action hero, Richard Hannay, who went on to star in several more of Buchan’s works. Hannay is renowned for two things: his stiff-upper-lip, and his miraculous ability to get out of a tight squeeze.

The story kicks off with Richard living in London, and bored out of his mind (old people are wild – how could you be bored living in London?!), until a stranger shows up on his doorstep and asks to be let in. Turns out, he’s the weird upstairs neighbour, who has faked his own death to escape the Illuminati (or something). Richard’s been really bored, so he’s all “Why not? Come on in!”, just happily ignoring all of those alarm bells. They have a grand old time hanging out together for about twelve hours… until Richard goes to wake his new roommate, and finds him dead. Stabbed right through the heart. Ouch.

What’s an all-action everyman hero to do? Freak the fuck out, of course!



Richard figures that either the killers will come after him, or the police will – either way, it doesn’t look good. So, he does a runner. As he heads up into Scotland, he starts to piece together what’s going on. Turns out, the dead guy was a freelance spy who knew about an imminent plot to destabilise Europe, starting with an assassination of the Premier of Greece. Having nothing better to do, Richard takes on the dead guy’s crusade to foil the evil plot. He puts his thinking hat on, and manages to decipher the crazy encrypted notes in a book he took from the dead guy, managing to stay one step ahead of both the police and the anarchist plotters all the while.

Richard, through a strange combination of luck and nous, manages to save the day in the end (duh)… but the Greek guy still bites it. Pity.

It ain’t all beer and skittles, though. It never is! I detected more than a few hints of anti-Semitism and some gross racial profiling throughout The Thirty-Nine Steps; heck, it was the early 20th century, Buchan could hardly be expected to know any better, but his writing might still offend some sensibilities today if not forewarned. Also, there’s some clumsy dialect in the Scottish parts, but it wasn’t too bad. Look at it this way: if you can keep up with Scottish Twitter, you’ll be fine.



As I’m sure you can tell by now, The Thirty-Nine Steps has become the prototype for the “spy-on-the-run” thriller. Buchan’s archetypes have been used in almost every movie of the genre ever since. All the elements are there: escaping the grips of ignoramus authorities, narrowly dodging the “bad guys”, an ordinary bloke who has greatness thrust upon him and chucks his whole life in the bin to go save the world. You can see Buchan’s influence everywhere, even in recent best-sellers like The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared.

The Thirty-Nine Steps has been adapted for the stage and screen a bunch of times, but nearly all of these versions depart substantially from the text – and boy, was I grateful to hear that! Turns out, my memory isn’t failing me, and my confusion about the ending isn’t a symptom of some rare type of late-twenties dementia. The play that I saw years ago was actually based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film version, rather than the book, and that explains the different ending than I remember. Phew!

I’d throw this one in the same category as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: a good book to read when you need something light and just a little bit ridiculous. The soldiers in the First World War loved it for that very reason. One wrote to Buchan that “the story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing”. So, if it can cure the misery of trench life, it can probably do wonders for your crappy day-job and lazy housemates.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Thirty-Nine Steps:

  • “Hilarious in a stuffy British way. BUt things haven’t changed that much. Take some friends on a canoe trip and see.” – Lewis F. Murphy
  • “loved it bill” – bill
  • “Gives good reading but many portions are boring. Can say not racy.” – G SUNDAR
  • “excellant fun, hand no problems, wish i needed another and had the money. or maybe i do but i only need one. hi” – Leeroy151


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 End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

The End Of The Affair was published in 1951. It is the fourth (and last) in a series of explicitly Catholic novels written by British author Graham Greene… but you wouldn’t know it if you only read the first half. After all, it kicks off with a highly illicit adulterous affair. Hardly the stuff of great Catholic morality tales, eh?

So, let’s get all the salacious details out of the way: yes, The End Of The Affair is based on an affair of Greene’s own (authors just never tire of writing what they know, do they?). He was sticking it to one Lady Catherine Walston, and it ended badly, as the lover affairs that inspire great art often do. The British edition of the novel was dedicated to “C”, but over the pond, a little further from home, the American edition was dedicated to “Catherine”. That’s one way to make your mark on history, I suppose…

Greene based the protagonist, Bendrix, on himself, and Lady C was represented by the character Sarah. They met through Bendrix’s friend (and Sarah’s husband), Henry Miles. The fact that Bendrix is cutting his mate’s grass tells you pretty much everything you need to know about him. Being, as it is, The End Of The Affair, you get relatively few details about the affair itself – it’s over before the story even begins. Sarah had suddenly and unexpectedly broken off her affair with Bendrix some time before, but he is still racked with jealousy and rage. So, he hires a private investigator (as you do, ahem!) to figure out what the fuck happened. Bendrix is basically stalking his ex by proxy, and it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds.


Through flashbacks and vignettes, we learn that Bendrix and Sarah fell in love quickly – it was the kind of affair that burns bright and fast – and he was increasingly frustrated by her refusal to divorce her husband (an impotent and amiable civil servant). Bendrix and Sarah were engaging in a little afternoon delight when a bomb went off (oh, yeah, there was a whole world war going on in the background, by the way), and it was shortly after that incident that she left him. The private dick reads Sarah’s diary from that day – ew, gross, I hate him – and reports to Bendrix that, in the moment of the bomb blast, Sarah made a vow to God that she would cut off her adulterous affair if He would let Bendrix survive the incident. That’s where things start to get religious-y, and the story takes some weird turns.

Sarah, unsurprisingly, has a lot of internal conflict over the whole situation. She checks out a few churches, and tries real hard to get her shit together… but then she quickly dies of a lung infection. And then all this miracle-y stuff happens. I told you it takes some weird turns! The most twisted part, in my humble opinion, is that when the adultress dies, her lover moves in with her husband. Greene explains that like it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it really creeped me out. The rest of The End Of The Affair is just Bendrix trying to reconcile Sarah’s death and her supposed faith, trying to figure out whether there really is a God, yadda yadda yadda. It’s heavy stuff, but the book is really short, so there’s not a lot of time for exposition: he just has a few revelations, but stays mad. The end.


Yes, The End Of The Affair is super-short. In fact, it reads more like a long short-story than a novel. Greene did his best to address major questions about faith, religion, obsession, jealousy, and the obligations placed upon men and women in hetero relationships, in as few words as possible. It really reminded me of that TED talk about jealousy in literature, which is well worth checking out.

My tl;dr summary: The End Of The Affair is a short novel about a scorned lover’s creepy pursuit of his best mate’s wife, who dies mid-way through her conversion to Catholicism. If I had to sum the book up in a single word, I would choose “bitter”: it sounds bitter, it feels bitter, it tastes bitter on your tongue as you read it. It’s not a romantic read, and probably not one to pick up if you’re looking to restore your faith in God (or humanity, come to that), but it’s certainly an interesting cautionary tale: never dump a writer without telling him why, or chances are you’ll find yourself a character in a book like this one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The End Of The Affair:

  • “My third time out with Greene. The guy’s a bore. The End of the Affair is  like having the Watchtower shoved at you by a Jehovah’s Witness with a really high opinion of himself.” – Fintan Ryan
  • “A boring book about people who don’t like each other very much but had an affair anyway,
    Another story of English men and women who were unable to confront their desires realistically. This is one of the reasons that I read non-fiction.” – Gordon R. Flygare
  • “I listened to this book on tape on a drive from Connecticut to Boston and tired of the man and woman constantly fighting. There was just too much drama in the car that day. I couldn’t take anymore. I haven’t fought that much with my husband over 33 years as took place within 3 hours of that car trip. Never was I so glad to get to my destination and tell the couple not to take themselves and their relationship, so seriously. Would not recommend this book on a car trip. Maybe it’s a better read.” – L. M. Keefer
  • “A woman goes to church like once and has some vague emotional experience. According to Graham Greene, this makes her a Catholic, a true religious woman. I’ve had orgasms with more depth than this novel.” – Lincott

A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin


Fantasy is not my first choice for genre fiction. I really struggle to keep track when there are eight hundred different characters, who all seem to have similar names, spread across a huge world that is completely unfamiliar to me… so I was pretty hesitant cracking open A Game of Thrones. I don’t live under a rock, so of course I’m already familiar with the HBO series, and I hoped that having watched it (a couple times over, no less) would help me keep track of what was going on. And, on that note, if you’re one of those people that completely pooh-poohs the television adaptation, we’re on completely different levels. I went so far as to make a solemn vow before I started reading that I would never become one of those arseholes that interrupts every GoT conversation by saying “Have you read the books, though?”, and I fully intend to stick to that. I like the series, and I’m no elitist. So, proceed with this review at your own peril.

And a note on the title: the original publication was, indeed, called “A Game of Thrones”. It wasn’t until after the HBO series premiered in 2011, and the book soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List, that the publisher released this paperback tie-in edition that excluded the indefinite article. Better brand recognition, and all of that…

Anyway: A Game of Thrones is the first in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I was pretty surprised to learn that he first started writing it back in 1991, and the debut wasn’t published until 1996. I had no idea it was that old! I know everyone bitches about how long it’s taking him to finish the sixth and seventh books in the series, but when you look at the timeline of releases so far, and how long it took him to write each one, the long delay is hardly out of character for him, so maybe we should all just back off. Whoops!

So I start reading. Before I’m fifty pages in, I’m already thinking “Yep, I’m very glad I watched the show first!”. I would have had a devil of a time following what was going on if I hadn’t. There are several points of view, and Martin switches back and forth between them super-fast, telling three different storylines simultaneously.


First, there’s Ned Stark, a Lord from the North, who is called to King’s Landing to serve as Hand of the King (the King being an old war buddy of his, if you went through what they did you’d understand). When he arrives in the southern city, he discovers that the King’s children are actually the product of an incestuous FWB thing going on between the Queen and her twin brother. (And don’t bother saying “ewww”, being disgusted by Queen Cersei and Jamie Lannister’s all-family fuck-fest is so 2011.) When Ned threatens to reveal the Queen’s secret, the King is mysteriously “killed by a boar” while hunting (read: low-key murdered), and Ned is executed as a traitor. His family arcs up, and declares war on the whole Kingdom. (Yes, this is the Land of the Great Overreaction.)

Meanwhile, further north, Ned’s bastard son has joined the league of the Night’s Watch, who protect The Wall (a giant block of ice that separates the Kingdom from the Northern wilderness). They’re there to keep out The Others, a kind of Zombie army (i.e., the “bad guys”). The Wall serves as a default penal colony, and all the undesirables from the Kingdom end up there, so it’s a pretty motley crew and not at all what the bastard expected.

And then there’s everything that’s going on Across The Narrow Sea. The Targaryens are the former royal family, ousted by now-King Robert Baratheon (the one that got boar-ed). Generations of in-breeding sent them a bit bonkers, but the two remaining kids – Viserys and Daenerys – seem to be holding up alright. Well, except that Viserys sells Daenerys in marriage, hoping that her new Dothraki (read: savage) husband will give him an army that he plans to use to re-take his throne. He’s a right prick, actually, in case you hadn’t guessed… and an impatient one, as it turns out. Daenerys’s savage husband brutally murders Viserys (is it wrong to have a “favourite murder”? I hope not, because this is mine!) because he keeps nagging him about the whole army thing. Daenerys thinks she’s home and hosed, but she has a bit of a rough trot; her husband dies, her kid dies, and she goes full bad-ass bitch and takes over the whole situation. She marshals her remaining followers and figures out how to hatch three live dragons – the throne is gon’ be hers, make no mistake. The story ends there (gasp!), with the lingering threat of a burgeoning dragon queen.

So, yes, A Game of Thrones has a really intricate and complex plot, but that’s not exactly uncommon for fantasy. The unique circumstances for this book, though, is that you’d pretty much have to be dead not to have at least some idea of what it’s all about, given the popularity of the TV show. I liked picking up on some of the interesting details that I missed in the show (like the symbolism of the stag killing the direwolf in the opening scenes). It was just enough to hold it all together for me, but – like I said – I’m damn glad I watched the show first, and I would have really struggled reading A Game of Thrones if I hadn’t.

The main recurring themes are (1) choosing between stuff (usually the people you love and some kind of honour/duty), and (2) the fuzzy distinction between good and evil. Martin himself has said:

“Having multiple viewpoints is crucial to the grayness of the characters. You have to be able to see the struggle from both sides, because real human beings in a war have all these processes of self-justification, telling ourselves why what we’re doing is the right thing.”

A Game of Thrones hardly revolutionises the fantasy genre in that regard, so I can see why die-hard fantasy fans roll their eyes at it a bit. I’m not really here for the fantasy, though, so it didn’t bother me enough to write it off entirely. And on the other side of it, you’ve got the ones that turn their noses up at anything with a popular adaptation, so you’d think that would really limit its market… but Martin seems to be doing okay regardless, so my heart doesn’t exactly break for him. In the end, I’m here for the politics, the underhanded wheeling and dealing, and he absolutely nails that aspect. If that’s not your style, there’s also a lot of internal conflict and character development to keep you entertained.

I did notice a few typos in this edition, especially towards the end – I guess the editor just got tired? It’s hard to blame him, this bad boy is several hundred pages long…

In the end, it was quite comforting to read a storyline with which I was already familiar (that doesn’t happen often with The List, given that every book is one I’ve never read before and I rarely take the time to watch TV or film adaptations). I really enjoyed A Game of Thrones… but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone who hasn’t already seen (and loved) the show. If you didn’t enjoy the show, you definitely shouldn’t bother with the book – what you see is what you get.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Game of Thrones:

  • “3 of the books are printed upside down from the cover. Very disapointed.” – Alex M.
  • “I enjoyed reading the book and it made the library happy also as the replacement for a book me and my puppy damaged. The price of the book was well worth the purchase. So no complaints.” – “Ichi
  • “Not thrilled at how small they were for real other than that they are books” – Curtis G.
  • “I have had these books and still have not read them but I feel great just having them.  10/10Why did I buy these” – Alex G.
  • “After 3 pages of reading I remembered I don’t actually like reading. Love the show though.” – Stewart S. Smith
  • “Swords and Knives are cool. Liked the book.” – Richard Beck
  • “What can I say, Winter is Coming! Excellent read with the spattering of sex. (More then I like but George didn’t ask my opinion before he started writing the books)” – Hope

 

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Listen up, folks, because I’m about to drop some knowledge: If you’re going to read Little Women for the very first time, you need to find an edition – like this one, from Penguin Classics – with a decent introduction to the text. I know not everyone reads the introduction first, but I do, and if I hadn’t in this case, I would have completely missed the point. I was already pretty familiar with the story, because I loved the Winona Ryder film adaptation as a kid, but as far as literary critique goes I would have been completely adrift without a better understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s background and her motivations behind writing Little Women. (Of course, if an edition with a decent introduction isn’t forthcoming, you could always just read this review before you get started…)

Little Women was first published in 1868, and has historically been dismissed as moralising, sentimental guff. It’s “for girls”, you know? It’s only recently that Alcott’s magnum opus has been considered a valued component of the American literary canon. To fully appreciate the genius of this book, you really need to understand Alcott’s politics and the context in which the book was published. And, in addition to finding a copy with an introduction that breaks it down for you, I would strongly recommend finding a copy of the original text; there was a later edition, published in 1880, that smoothed out a lot of the sharp edges and, in so doing, refined a lot of the language and character descriptions to make them seem more “genteel”. Virtually all readers nowadays pick up the 1880 edition without realising what they’re missing out on – don’t be one of them!

So, onto all this background knowledge I keep telling you that you need: Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a “moral” book for young girls, with “wide appeal”. The story she came up with follows the lives of the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they transition into womanhood. Alcott herself was the second of four daughters, and – believe it or not – the similarities between her and Jo March don’t end there, so it’s pretty clear where she drew her inspiration. In fact, the story was so autobiographical that fans would write letters addressed to “Miss March”, and Alcott – being the good sport she was – would respond without correcting them. The first book was such a huge commercial success that readers (and Alcott’s publishers) immediately began clamouring for a sequel, so Alcott pumped out the follow-up “Good Wives” (though, it must be said, she was not a fan of that title, it was chosen by the publishers and she had no say at all). The two volumes are now sold together as a single edition, bearing the name Little Women.

Now, even though she seems like a good little woman herself, giving the publishers exactly what they wanted, Alcott is on record as having said that she would have much preferred to keep working on her own collection of short stories, which was very different in nature to the book for which she is most famous. So, why didn’t she? Well… she was hard up for cash. She wrote Little Women “in record time, for money” she said, but she hated writing it and referred to the process as “plodding away”.

She sought to address three major themes – domesticity, work, and true love – through this story of a family living in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Alcott also effectively created the archetype of the “all-American girl”, embodying its different aspects in each of the March sisters: there’s Meg the beauty, Jo the career woman, Beth the dutiful wallflower, and Amy the romantic. The publishers wanted a story about good girls being good, but Alcott’s true message underlying the story is a little different: she’s clearly saying that virtue should be valued over wealth, and that women can overcome the constraints upon their gender through hard work and piety.

Yep, that’s right: Alcott was a feminist, and Little Women – despite its prima facie old-school values, and its controversial ending – is a deeply feminist novel. At the time of its publication, there were almost no models of non-traditional womanhood in popular media for young girls. So, Alcott took it upon herself to pitch many ideas of social change and progressive politics against the familiar backdrop of domestic life. Little Women paints a very familiar picture of the lives of girls in 19th century America, but it also legitimises their aspirations to grow beyond what is “expected” of them. So, three cheers for Alcott – way the fuck ahead of her time!

She gave the March sisters adventurous plots and storylines that had traditionally been coded as male. She wanted to normalise the ambition of women, and showcase alternatives to existing gender roles (which, at the time, were more restrictive than a damn corset). In particular, she addressed the idea that spinsters were “fringe” members of society, without power or influence. If you look closely, you’ll see that the spinsters and unmarried women are actually strong, multi-dimensional characters, the true power brokers of the New England world that she created. Alcott shat all over the idea that you needed a husband and a family to be a “good” woman, and she did so from a great fucking height.


Now, everyone who’s read the book is currently screaming at me: “But Alcott ‘saved’ Jo in the end by marrying her off! That’s not feminist!”. To that, I say that the way in which Alcott did it was so clever and subversive, I don’t blame you for missing it on the first take. Alcott did, indeed, “marry off” her heroine… but not to the dashing, Prince Charming (Laurie), who had begged for her hand time and time again. Nope! Jo instead marries the much older (and poorer!) Professor Friederich Bhaer, a far less romantic ending and one that subverted the expectations of all the young readers who had, until then, never read a love story that didn’t involve a fairytale ending. Fuck yes, Alcott – fuck yes! People who criticise this ending don’t seem to understand the precarious position in which the author found herself. She was straddling the demands of her moneybags publishers – not to mention her very pious and conservative father – as well as her own determination to write a story that upheld her own feminist values. You can’t put a 20th century feminist head on a 19th century working woman’s shoulders, and I say she did a damn good job with what she had.

“For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord”, kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others, Little Women itself stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom.”

The book is full of sneaky little feminist asides. Of course, there are plenty of characters that represent the social status-quo, in keeping with the morals of the time, but the fact that Alcott managed to include her own agenda at all feels rebellious and awesome. In real life, Alcott was an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement (yay!), and also the temperance movement (boo!), so she practiced what she preached, no matter what her Daddy said. If you need any more proof that she was fighting the good fight, the wonderful introduction to my Penguin Classics edition cites her influence on some of the founding mothers of feminism as we know it today: Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, Joyce Carol Oates, and others.


So, all told, I’m really glad I read the introduction and learned all of this before I started reading the book – otherwise, I could well have fallen into the trap of disregarding Little Women as fluff. As it was, I knew exactly what to look for in the story, and I found it really interesting and enjoyable. Little Women is basically the original YA novel – sure, it can be a bit saccharine and trite at times, but no more so than any other work published around the same time, and when you look closely there are some really valuable lessons hidden away there.

That said, even though I’m calling this a Recommended read(!), I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers. It’s much better suited to older readers, who have more developed critical thinking skills and can truly appreciate the masterful way that this simple story, about a very loving tight-knit group of sisters, makes some very important points about the role of women in society… points that we could do well to re-visit often.

Tl;dr? Make sure you look beneath the surface of Little Women, because that’s where you’ll find Alcott’s fighting feminist spirit. Onwards, ladies!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Women:

  • “PLEASE NOTE THAT I DID NOT ORDER THIS ITEM” – SUE
  • “I would have given it five stars if the last few chapters hadn’t been some what disappointing. The majority of the book brought me immense pleasure and pain. Enjoy. It is worthwhile. Especially if you love Jesus.” – Blodwyn
  • “It was dumb. The women acted like 5 year olds more than half of the time and the mother who stressed the importance of resources, decided to give away food. Genius.” – Matthew
  • “If you are looking for a 400+ page children’s book narrated bu an unenthusiastic female robot… LOOK NO FURTHER… YOU HAVE FOUND IT!!!!” – Amazon Customer

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green


Well, it’s about time I got around to reading The Fault In Our Stars. After John Green announced the title of this, his sixth book, it immediately rose to #84 on the Amazon.com best-seller list. And that was just the title! (It’s drawn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, by the way: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.) He foolishly promised to personally sign each pre-order, which is how he ended up having to autograph every single copy of the first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received. That’s peak extra, right there…

Of course, The Fault In Our Stars went on to debut at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for Children’s Chapter Books, and it remained there for seven consecutive weeks. It’s also appeared on pretty much every other best seller list known to man, it topped the Time List of Fiction Books for 2012, and recent estimates suggest that there are over a million copies in circulation. It has become the definitive sick-lit Young Adult novel… so, like I said, it’s about bloody time I read it.

The story follows the relationship of the narrator, 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Lancester, and her 17-year-old amputee boyfriend, Augustus Waters. They meet in a naff support group for teenagers with cancer. I appreciated Green’s skipping over all of the “life-changing diagnosis” tropes – The Fault In Our Stars is a book about living with cancer, which comes as a refreshing change of pace. However, my appreciation of the story pretty much ended there, I’m afraid.

Augustus seems to be more an assortment of affectations than an actual character. In fact, you could call him a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a way, and it left a yucky taste in my mouth. He has this whole “I carry around cigarettes but never actually light them because it’s a metaphor” thing, and I had to forcibly restrain myself from dry heaving every time it was mentioned.

I know the legions of fans out there will hate me for this, but I really wasn’t drawn into the tragic teenage love story at all. In fact, the only parts that really drew me in were the ones about Hazel’s mother. Hazel describes one particular scene where she was in the ICU, close to death, and she overheard her mother sobbing “I won’t be a Mom anymore!”. That got me right in the feels! Maybe I’m getting old…?

All that said, I’m very aware that I’m very alone in my garbage opinion. The Fault In Our Stars has received massive critical acclaim. It was praised largely for its “humour” (ha!), its “strong characters” (double ha!), language, themes, and perspective on romantic relationships between cancer patients. The very few less-than-positive reviews I came across criticised Green’s choice of subject matter, arguing that it’s exploitative – and I can see where they’re coming from. Green would have been very well aware of the attention that his book would receive, and surely he would (should?) have considered the risk of his making real-life teenage cancer patients circus acts in the lives of his fans. Ultimately, though, it seems like he couldn’t resist the temptation to write the topic that would yank (hard!) on the maximum number of heart-strings. In that, he was definitely successful.


He sold the film rights almost straight away, and the feature film was released two years after publication. It was a huge commercial success too, grossing over $307 million worldwide (on a budget of just $12 million, no less). I watched it myself, after I’d read the book, hoping I’d enjoy the story more if I was one step removed from the teenage girl narration (a la The Hunger Games)… but no dice. It wasn’t a terrible movie, by any means, but I’d struggle to recall a single moment or performance that really stood out for me, gun to my head.

In the end, I’d say the main reason to read The Fault In Our Stars is basically just to catch-up with the rest of the world. Like Harry Potter before it, there’s a whole generation coming up behind us with a deep emotional investment in this book – it’s probably going to be the reason that some teenagers decide to study medicine, or Shakespeare, or any other number of things. If the doctor treating me in my nursing home once loved this book, I’d sure as shit like to have something to say about it, in the hopes that it’d make them like me enough to keep me alive a little longer. I’m all about the long game 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Fault In Our Stars:

  • “There is literally nothing wrong with this book except for one awkward sentence about knees that I wish had been worded better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “The best part of the book is that it’s over.” – David Kim
  • “Lovely book. It’s the first time ever I was rooting for the teenagers to have sex.” – Kris Matsumoto Wong
  • “Tolerable, but not life changing” – Kenneth choi
  • “It’s basically twilight with cancer.” – janathan tatum
  • “These 1-star Amazon reviews are better written than this book….” – Lily Pop

 

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee


Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. As if that weren’t enough, she refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations! She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be treated kindly by the handful of reviewers she thought might look it over. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood. Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I haven’t felt this much adoration for a wise old owl character since Dumbledore. I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!

Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.


So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds). Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!

Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press. Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

The Martian – Andy Weir


According to the blurb on the front cover of The Martian, the Financial Times called it “Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe”. Indeed, like Gravity, the most compelling thing about The Martian is its premise: an astronaut becomes stranded alone on Mars and has to find a way to make 30 days’ worth of supplies last for years, 220 million miles away from Earth with no way to communicate. Our brains just aren’t wired to compute that kind of aloneness, so if you decide to read The Martian, be prepared for a bit of a mind-fuck.

Andy Weir began writing The Martian in 2009. He spent years researching (astronomy, space flight, orbital mechanics, botany) to make sure the book was as technically accurate as possible, based on today’s technology. Having been turned down by multiple literary agents in the past, Weir decided to go ahead and self-publish The Martian serially – one chapter at a time – on his own website. Within a few months, he had hundreds of fans requesting an eBook with the whole story, so he cobbled one together and put the first edition online for sale at Amazon’s lowest possible price point – 99 cents.

The Martian eBook quickly sold over 35,000 copies (more than had ever been downloaded for free), which was enough to send it straight to the top of Amazon’s science fiction best-seller list. Of course, this caught the attention of the major publishers. Weir eventually sold off the rights piece by piece (first audiobook, then U.S. rights, then international rights). All told, he made upwards of six figures, and The Martian had a second debut – in the twelfth spot on the New York Times best seller list for hardcover fiction. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2015, a film adaptation starring Matt Damon was released, and it took over $630 million at the box office. Weir is one of those “overnight success” stories that was years in the making…

So, back to the story: American astronaut, Mark Watney, finds himself abandoned on Mars. His crew had to take the drastic step of an emergency evacuation, six days into their month-long mission, due to a dust storm. Watney got blown off course en route to the shuttle, and – believing him to be dead – they left him behind. Whoops!

Once everyone at NASA back on Earth figures out he’s alive, shit really hits the fan. But never fear: Watney is a (remarkably unflappable) botanist and engineer. He figures out a way to grow crops, and he retrieves a communications device from a previous unmanned mission.

The opening chapters are a bit of an info-dump, but that’s hardly surprising given the subject matter. I’m not 100% sure I understood all of the technical specs that Weir threw at me, but I liked Watney’s “voice” as narrator. Even though it was written in the style of a mission log, it was really conversational. Then the point of view changed – to give the story of what was going on back on Earth – and it sounded not entirely unlike a Dan Brown novel.

There’s certainly a lot of interesting Mars facts in The Martian (well… duh). I learned that you can’t make or use a compass on Mars, for instance, because the red planet has no magnetic field. Still, far and away the most important thing I learned is that I am neither smart enough nor tough enough to survive on Mars. Seriously! If Elon Musk gets his way and we start colonising Mars in the next year or whatever, just go on without me. I’ll only slow you all down.

The rest of the story unfolds in a series of (fairly predictable) mishaps and misadventures. After several chapters of Watney explaining (in great detail) how important “the Hab” (an artificial habitat tent thing) is for his survival, of course it blows up. His potato crops die, and it looks for a minute like there’s a real risk that he’ll starve to death before anyone can pick him up. Other disasters include Watney accidentally destroying his communications equipment (he resorts to sending one-way messages to Earth by arranging Mars rocks into Morse Code), and NASA launching a re-supply rocket that explodes in the air. Despite the dire circumstances, there’s only one moment where Watney really panics, as far as I can recall – he has nerves of steel and unfailing optimism, which is jarringly unrealistic but also kind of vital to the plot (I mean, there’s not much of a story in an astronaut rocking in the foetal position on Mars until he dies, right?).


In the end, the crew that left Watney behind are able to return and retrieve him (with just a few other disasters slowing them down). In his final log entry, Watney starts waxing lyrical about the human instinct to help others, and his utter joy at being rescued. I was kind of disappointed that the story ended where it did; to me, the really interesting part would have been Watney’s return to Earth, re-settling after a year of the most extreme kind of solitude (perhaps there’s a sequel in that?).

I’m sure Weir wouldn’t want me to describe The Martian as a comedy, but I must say I found it really bloody funny. It was a little scary at times, sure, and very interesting, but most of the time I found it just plain funny. Watney was a fantastic narrator, and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. He’s so likeable that Australian scientists have actually – like, in real life – named a new species of bush tomato after him (Solanum Watneyi). I’m not even kidding.

I really enjoyed The Martian, but I stop just short of listing it as a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a fun read, but it’s not life changing, and I’m not all that inclined to run out and purchase copies of everything else Weir ever wrote. Pick up The Martian if you’ve read too many classics lately, and you need a quick read with a few chuckles and a feel-good ending.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Martian:

  • “The highly technical explanations turned my stomach. I like science fiction books, but not this. The Supreme Court would not allow it to be read to death row inmates. The little story there was could not keep me reading.” – Howard J. Fox
  • “Much Mars.
    Such science.
    Wow.” – Jordan Mendez
  • “Mechanical engineering porn. Good stuff.” – Casey
  • “i hate the book because it says the F word in it and I do not like survival books also why I do not like the book is because I do not like space books.” – Lost in the jungle

 

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham


I’ve got to be honest: The List doesn’t feature as many Australian authors as I’d like. If you have a favourite, please do let me know so I can put it on The Next List! In the meantime, I’ve picked up The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

Believe it or not, The Dressmaker is actually Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000, and it was adapted into a major motion picture (starring Kate Winslet!) in 2015. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”: it’s the product of participating in an RMIT creative writing course that she had never actually intended to join. She just showed up and started spitting fire, inspired by her mother’s life as a dressmaker in a small country town. Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cross-dressing cop (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. She also has a bit of a flirt now and then with a poor bloke who lives in a caravan up the road.

It takes Ham a couple hundred pages (full of veiled references and allusions) to reveal Tilly’s “dark secret”: the locals blame her for the death of a boy who was bullying her when they were children. That’s pretty heavy, I suppose, but then Ham goes and kills off Tilly’s love interest in the same breath, so it’s a fair wallop for the reader. What’s more, he has the most ridiculous death ever – he jumps into a silo (of all things), believing it to be filled with wheat, when it is actually filled with sorghum. The sorghum can’t support his weight, he sinks and suffocates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men are stupid.

Anyway, this second death really sets the locals off, and Tilly is forced to do dressmaking work for people from neighbouring towns. They’re the only ones who don’t care about her small-town scandal(s), and they actually pay her on time, which is very nice of them. This goes on until the community decides to put on a play, and they come to Tilly – hats in hands – asking her to make their costumes. She agrees to do so on the condition that they pay her in full, up-front (fair enough). They pay her using the funds they had saved to insure all the town buildings. Can you see where this is going?

It’s probably a darker ending than you’re imagining (spoiler alert, etc. etc.): Tilly makes the costumes, waits until the whole town has left to perform the play in the next town over… then she burns the whole damn place to the ground. Every single building. All personal effects – even the dresses belonging to her friend the cross-dressing cop – up in flames. Whoosh! The end.

It’s pretty much what we’ve all dreamed of doing (“I’ll show them! I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have my revenge!”), only none of us are crazy enough to actually do it. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a feral version of Sea Change”, which is pretty much spot on. Despite the dark ending, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments. The humour is deeply Australian, though, so I’m not sure how it would translate for an international audience.


Now, when you’re reading The Dressmaker, you can skip over a lot of the seamstress and fashion lingo, if you want. You won’t miss anything as long as you don’t care about being able to picture all her outfits with 100% accuracy. I didn’t bother looking any of it up, and I’m pretty sure I still got the gist. There are a lot of really obvious sewing and clothing similes (“the fog resting around the veranda moved like the frills on a skirt”), but for those an intimate knowledge of dressmaking isn’t required.

Side note: Ham starts to run out of those metaphors and similes about half way through, and has to start using clumsy imagery like this:

“… his toupee had washed off and lay like a discarded scrotum on the grass by his bald head…”

(This was, without parallel, my favourite line from the entire book.)

I took the liberty of watching the film trailer after I’d finished the book. Judging by that alone, the film is a lot more upbeat, and the Tilly character is much more expressive and likeable. Almost every review I’ve read of The Dressmaker says the same thing. So, although it was nice to read a homegrown book for once, I’d probably recommend you give it a pass and check out the movie instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dressmaker:

  • “An absolute steaming pile of rubbish. The author lives up to her surname as she hams it up for the novel. There is a multitude of characters that I didn’t connect with or care about, it might translate well to the big screen but don’t let that tempt you into reading this.” – James Motgomery
  • “I suppose this book is supposed to be humorous, but I found it disgusting. After reading about ninety pages, I was sick of the lurid vignettes of perverts, so I stopped reading. I had expected a story about a young woman who earns her living with her Singer sewing machine. Perhaps that comes further along than I managed to read.” – Linda Appleton
  • “This has to be some kind of satire on life as the characters were totally unbelievable. I give this no stars and think it should be tossed in a fire. Since I have to Star rate it I give it a negative 1.” – Psyched!
  • “No not my type of book. Kept waiting for something nice to happen. Never did.” – diane bradley

 

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