Keeping Up With The Penguins

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A Complete(ish) Beginner’s Guide to Really Old Poems

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem dating back to the 14th century. It’s the oldest book on The List, and the only poem on there too. I’d heard about Inferno (the first “book” of The Divine Comedy) all my life, but I had only the vaguest idea what it was actually about. As I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s a whole bunch of really famous, really old poems that I’ve never read. I’ve bluffed my way through conversations about The Iliad, and snoozed through a film adaptation of Beowulf, but for the most part those poems remained a mystery to me. I figured I couldn’t be the only one, so I set about learning everything I could about them, all so I could bring you this: the complete(ish) beginner’s guide to really old poems.

A Complete(ish) Beginner's Guide to Really Old Poems - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Approx. 2,000 BC)

You thought The Divine Comedy was old? We’re talking really old here today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, a poem that old has been rehashed and rebooted so many times that we have no idea who wrote it anymore. At one point, five different stories were combined into a single epic poem and immortalised in the “Old Babylonian” version (scratched into a few tablets in the 18th century BC), and that remains the oldest surviving version of The Epic of Gilgamesh .

I’m assuming you’re not exactly up on your Mesopotamian history (I’m sure not), so the story might be a bit hard to follow, but it’s so crazy it’s worth bearing with me. This bloke, Gilgamesh, was the king of Uruk (an ancient city in modern-day Iraq). He was a bit of a dick to his people, so the gods created Enkidu, a “wild man” that could only be civilised through a crazy fuck fest with a local harlot (I’m not kidding). Once he got that out of the way, Enkidu challenged Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh won, but they had a laugh about it and an ancient Mesopotamian beer together afterwards. They became great friends, and worked out a plan to kill Humbaba The Terrible. See, Humbaba was guarding the sacred tree in the Cedar forest, and they wanted to chop it down to do some home improvement projects (or something). Meanwhile, the goddess Ishtar was pissed that Gilgamesh rejected her booty call, so she sent down the Bull of Heaven to sort him out… but he and his new buddy Enkidu took him down, too. Killer team, these two!

Anyway, the gods were pretty shitty that their “wild man” went off script like that, so they sentenced him to death. Gilgamesh was really cut up about losing his bro, so he wandered off into the woods to try and find the “secret to eternal life”. He looked long and hard, but only found some old dude who fed him annoying platitudes about death being part of life. Boo. Gilgamesh thought he might be onto something with a magic flower for a minute, but then a snake came along and ate it, so he was back to square one. In the end, he returned home and became a magnificent ruler, dying of old age.

The Epic of Gilgamesh hits the trifecta of being super-old (indeed, the oldest!), a crazy good epic story (see above), and pretty damn significant in literary terms. We knew almost nothing about the Sumerians (who lived in that area and wrote the thing all that time ago) prior to the discovery of these tablets. Plus, a lot of the story mirrors or echoes stories from the Bible, which wasn’t written until much later. Great floods, divine punishment – is The Epic of Gilgamesh corroborating evidence for these stories, or did the Christians just blatantly rip them off? Academic debate rages on…

You can get The Epic of Gilgamesh here.

The Iliad & The Odyssey (Approx. 900 BC)

We have to skip ahead quite a way to find what we can call the oldest surviving work of Western literature. Long after the Sumerians chipped away at tablets, the Ancient Greeks jumped on the bandwagon and started committing stories to written poetry. The Iliad and The Odyssey are widely attributed to our new friend Homer, but he was old and blind and never wrote anything down, and the stories had been on the Ancient Greek grapevine for quite a while, so it’s kind of controversial to definitively say that he “wrote” them. Either way, these poems were #1 on the charts in Ancient Greece, and their influence on art, literature and culture continues to this day.

The Iliad is an epic poem depicting a few weeks in the final year of the Trojan War, when there was big beef between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles (yep, like that thing on your foot, same one). The poem is super long, though, and it pulls in all kinds of history and prophesies for the future and stuff, so it basically tells the story of the whole war as well as a bunch of Ancient Greek legends. It was followed by The Odyssey, a sort of sequel, written not long after. This might be one of the few instances in history where the sequel is sexier than the original, because The Odyssey follows the story of Odysseus trying to get home after a big one out at Troy. His wife – Penelope – thought he was dead, so we also get the story of how she fought off all the fellas trying to slide into her DMs now that she’s single again. Both of these poems were originally composed in what’s now called Homeric Greek (Homer was such a big deal, he got a dialect named after him), and likely floated around in oral traditions (i.e., slam poets performing it on the street for cash) for quite a while before anyone could find a pen.

A couple extra fun facts for you: The Odyssey was kind of the first feminist poem, because women actually got to speak and make decisions and stuff (Penelope was a bad bitch, she totally ran things). And we refer to long journeys as “odysseys” now, which – you guessed it – we get from the poem. So as you can see, these poems – and our mate Homer – are a Big DealTM.

You can get a gorgeous leather-bound copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey together here.

The Mahābhārata (Approx. 900 BC)

Around the same time, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India emerged: the Mahābhārata. Indians generally attribute the poem to Vyasa (a Sanskrit name meaning, literally, “compiler”). He is revered as a deity in most Hindu traditions, being one of the Chiranjivins (immortals), and there is a festival (Guru Purnima) held in his honour each year. Funnily enough, he’s also a central character in this epic poem he wrote – fancy that! Academics and experts have tried their best to work out an accurate history of the poem (epics like that don’t just appear, you know, they are composed in bits and pieces over time). As best we can tell, the oldest written parts still in existence date back to about the 5th century BC, but the poem itself emerged at least a few centuries before that.

The Mahābhārata has many different translations, the most common of which describes it as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”. It tells the story of the Kuruksetra War, in great, great detail. Two cousins got into a hectic fight about who should be next in line to the throne, and next thing you know there’s a great whopping battle and a whole bunch of casualties and everyone heads into the afterlife. I know most epic poems are long (it’s kind of their defining characteristic), but get this: it is the longest epic poem still known to us today (and the longest one ever written, as far as we know). Unsurprisingly, then, in addition to the big war, it covers all kinds of other shit: philosophy, religion, royalty, family conflict, friendship, death, and everything else you can imagine. The longest version has about 200,000 lines, plus a bunch of parts that aren’t actually poetry at all (“prose passages”). That’s ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined. So if you want to give this one a crack, you’re going to need to allot a lot of time.

In terms of literary significance, ancient Indian texts often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West (we’re too busy figuring out whether Homer actually wrote shit down himself or whether someone else did it for him). Chances are, you hadn’t even heard of The Mahābhārata until right now. You might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita though (“the song of the Lord” for Hindu Indians), so take heart: the Gita is actually an extract from The Mahābhārata. In that sense, in terms of significance, this epic poem is on par with the Holy Bible. Let that sink in.

You can get The Mahābhārata in full here, or the Bhagavad Gita section here.

The Aeneid (19-29 BC)

Yes, a lot of stuff happened poetry-wise over the following centuries, but we can skip over it all to catch up to the Aeneid: an epic poem of Ancient Rome written by a bloke called Virgil (and it’s finally recent enough that we can lock down to a relative certainty who wrote what, yay!). Virgil was king shit when it came to poetry in Ancient Rome; he wrote this one and a handful of others that pretty much defined this period in literature.

As far as The Aeneid goes, it took him ten years to write it, so he worked bloody hard to get it right. It’s actually modelled off the Iliad and the Odyssey, so it’s stacks on stacks of brilliance. The Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan guy called Aeneas; he actually featured in the Iliad too, so it’s kind of like Virgil’s homage to Homer (and maybe an attempt to outdo him, just a little bit). The poem is split in half, and each section split into six (so twelve “books” all up). The first half covers Aeneas getting the fuck out of Troy after the Greeks came around and destroyed the joint (remember that wooden horse?). He and his Trojan buddies sail to Italy, with the larrikin idea of founding a new empire (Rome). Aeneas has a bit of a rough trot with curses and weather events and stuff. He even finds the love of a good woman, only for her to kill herself when he sails off to get on with his Rome-founding. When he finally makes it to Italy, he randomly descends into the underworld, and has a chat with his dead Dad. Finally, he comes back up and they’re in Italy ready to do some founding, and everything’s grand…

… until Aeneas kills one of the local herdsman’s pets, and there’s some drama over whether he’s an eligible suitor for the princess of the day. This kicks off a war, and Aeneas has to get his arse in gear to pull some troops together. There’s some nail-biting back-and-forth between the warring factions, lots of people die (which seems to be a common theme in these poems), but ultimately Aeneas and his posse are victorious. And Rome was built in a day! (Just kidding…)

Virgil actually died on a research trip to Greece while he was editing The Aeneid. He told everyone to burn the manuscript when he died, but no one listened – so even though he spent ten years working on it, we’ve ended up with some half-arsed epic poem that the writer probably wasn’t even happy with, and we hold it up as one of the greatest pieces of Latin literature ever written. It’s a cornerstone of the Western canon, and just about everyone who learns Latin is still forced to memorise at least part of it. Its influence can be seen in almost everything that came after it (including the following poems listed here)…

You can pick up a great translation of The Aeneid here.

Beowulf (975 AD)

Now we’re back on our own side of the Christ divide, and onto texts that were actually written in English. Beowulf is the oldest one of those (though the date of its actual composition is still up for debate, and nerdy academics get really fired up about it). Unfortunately, we have no bloody idea who actually wrote it, so the nerds literally just refer to them as “the Beowulf poet” (very creative).

So, there’s this pub in Denmark, right? (Seriously, this is how it actually starts). All the king’s soldiers have beers there after they’re done fighting battles. They sing, trade gifts, and have a jolly good time. They’re not very considerate of their neighbours when leaving the premises, though, and in this case their neighbour is the swampland demon Grendel. He gets the shits with their carry-on, so he goes on a killing spree every night until they quieten down. Then, a bloke living in Geats (that’s Beowulf!) hears about the big demon and figures he could take him, so he sails to Denmark.

This Beowulf character is actually pretty good; he manages to defeat Grendel and tear off his arm, even though he’d been out drinking with the boys all the night before. The Danes are all very grateful, but Grendel’s mother is really ticked off about her dead son, so she comes seeking revenge. She doesn’t kill Beowulf straight away, but she kills one of the king’s mates and runs away, figuring he’ll come chasing after her (which he does – men are stupid). She and Beowulf have this crazy underwater battle, and he manages to come out a winner again. Everybody’s happy!

You’d think that would be the end, but no. Beowulf heads home to Geats and ends up becoming king. Everything’s chill for a while, until some kid wakes up a dragon, and Beowulf ends up having to sort that out too. He’s gone a bit soft in his old age, and he dies of a whopping great dragon bite. His people burn him on a pyre, and he’s buried with a bunch of treasure.

There’s only one surviving original manuscript and it is literally about 1,000 years old. It nearly burnt to a crisp in a fire in 1731, so you can bet they’re keeping a bloody close eye on it now. J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with it, and literary criticism of Beowulf pretty much began with him. It’s still super-popular and modern versions and adaptations are being released all the time (remember the movie with Angelina Jolie a few years ago?), moreso than any of the other poems on this list.

You can get a highly-acclaimed version (and even a bilingual edition) of Beowulf here.

The Divine Comedy (1321 AD)

And here we are, back where I began with this week’s review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem split into three parts (Inferno – the most famous – then Purgatorio and Paradiso), describing Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, and eventual arrival in Heaven. It is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature. The Divine Comedy was so influential that it pretty much single-handedly cemented the Tuscan dialect (the one that Dante wrote in) as the official Italian language. Can you imagine a book deciding what language a country speaks today? Crazy!

Dante was so heavily influenced by Virgil (remember him from the Aeneid?) that he made him one of the characters, alongside himself, in the poem. Dante and Virgil (the characters) take a nice little trip down into the underworld, making their way through increasingly awful circles of hell until they get to the center where the worst sinners hang out. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then hike up the Mountain of Purgatory, where’s it pretty much more of the same but with less skin-flaying; everyone’s just hanging around praying, trying to get into Heaven. Finally, Virgil buggers off, and Dante meets up with the chick he had a crush on back in the mortal realm. She guides him through Heaven, and there’s lots of praising the Lord and stuff. Nice, eh?

When it first came out, The Divine Comedy was super-popular and everyone thought it was great… but then the Enlightenment happened and everyone just sort of forgot about it for a while. It didn’t come back into fashion until the 1800s, but it’s remained on the radar ever since. All kinds of writers and poets (T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, etc.) show evidence of its influence in their work. People keep re-translating the original, and there are new versions published all the time. It has inspired paintings, sculptures, films, video games, and just about every other media we have. Just goes to show: everything old is new again, eventually!

You can get the complete version (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) in English here, or a bilingual edition (English-Italian) here.

Paradise Lost (1667)

And, finally, almost four millennia from where we began back in ancient Mesopotamia, we land on Paradise Lost: an epic poem written by John Milton in 17th century England. It is usually discussed right alongside The Divine Comedy, because they cover off a lot of the same stuff, and are relatively close together in time (compared to the gaps between the others, anyway).

Milton’s poem starts in the middle of the action: Satan and a bunch of his rebel angel buddies have been banished to Hell, and he’s trying to get the rabble into some kind of order so they can get on with the demon business of corrupting all of Mankind. Satan draws the short straw, and has to make his way back up onto earth to find the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are hanging out. He transforms himself into a snake, cons Eve into eating one stinking apple and – just like that – all of humanity is doomed. Job done, says Satan. He leaves Adam and Eve alone to bone, and trots triumphantly back to Hell.

When he gets there, he has a big humble brag about what a great job he’s done taking down Paradise, but he craps on a bit too long and, before he can finish, he and all his mates transform into snakes permanently. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Adam and Eve have gone crawling to God. Adam’s having hallucinations about what’s going to happen to Mankind now that they’ve cocked everything up, and he is freaking out. God kicks them out, telling them to go sit outside and think about what they’ve done, and that’s pretty much where humanity is at now. The end.

It might seem like your basic Christian story, just throwing a bit of glitter on some Bible stories and calling it a day, but Paradise Lost has sparked generations of debate and controversy. Everyone seems to agree that it’s brilliant, but there have been some almighty arguments about what Milton was trying to say and whether we’re supposed to agree with what he said. Paradise Lost, like the others, continues to be seriously influential in art, music and literature today. In fact, you’ve probably watched a movie or listened to an album or looked at a piece of art influenced by Milton’s masterpiece, and just not realised it.

You can get the complete text of Paradise Lost here.

Phew! We made it. There are, of course, many significant and brilliant poems that occurred in the intervening years of this timeline, but these are the big ones – the ones that are probably going to come up in conversation or at a pub trivia night. Now, at the very least, your eyes won’t glaze over completely.

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Have you read any of these really old poems? Has this guide inspired you to seek any of them out? Let me know in the comments (or share over at KUWTP on Facebook!).




Right On, Sister: The Best “Bad Women” In Fiction

For too long, complex narrative arcs have been distributed unevenly. Our evil villains and deeply flawed protagonists have been almost exclusively male. When women do get a look-in, it’s often tokenistic or cliche (the trope of the overbearing mother, written in solely to justify a young male character’s anti-social behaviour, for instance). Women, the “gentler sex”, are almost always portrayed as merciful and nurturing. When they aren’t, their tactics for evil are usually reduced to “feminine wiles” – only men have been allowed to be violent, cruel, and unfeeling. However, with growing awareness of that imbalance has come a growing demand for “bad women” in literature: women who are mean, ugly, ungrateful, indulgent, deviant, and different. Just this week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Girl On The Train, narrated by a notoriously unreliable and unlikeable black-out alcoholic. I love seeing this particular pendulum swing back.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that all fiction prior to the 21st century was a barren landscape of retiring women. In fact, some of my favourite bad women are buried way back in the canon of the classics. It’s just that they were so infrequent as to be almost invisible. Finally, some of them are starting to see the light of day. In celebration of that, I’ve put together a list: the best “bad women” in fiction.

The Best Bad Women in Fiction - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Miss Trunchbull (Matilda – Roald Dahl)

This is the first example that I can recall from a book of my childhood, the incomparable Matilda. Miss Trunchbull struck fear in the hearts of children everywhere. She was a cruel and exacting despot, ruling with the iron fist over Matilda’s school and standing in stark contrast to beloved teacher Miss Honey. “The Trunchbull” laughed in the face of the maternal sensitivities often written onto female characters by default; she openly hated children (“I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting, they are the bane of my life”) and found increasingly creative ways to punish and torture them. I was terrified of her as a child, but the older I got the more I came to appreciate and respect her violation of the “rules” for women. She was ugly, brash, fiercely un-maternal, and she did not give a fuck what anyone thought.

Rebecca “Becky” Sharp (Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray)

Admittedly, I didn’t love Vanity Fair. The first few hundred pages were good, but the rest was a total snooze-fest. The only redeeming feature towards the end was Becky Sharp, the cunning, manipulative social climber. Granted, she definitely used her feminine wiles to get what she wanted (Thackeray was a man of his time, after all) but at least she was completely unapologetic about it. She had no compunction about luring men into her trap, and standing on their shoulders to get to the top of the social ladder. Becky wasn’t afraid to do the “wrong” thing; perhaps not a universally admirable trait, but in this case it got Becky a far happier ending than any of the other miserable sods in Vanity Fair.

Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert)

Emma Bovary had the audacity to become intolerably bored with the banal domestic life that her society had deemed “appropriate” for her. Over the course of Madame Bovary, she descended into a spiral of alcohol, adultery, and debt, culminating in her suicide. I suppose we could call her selfish and shallow; after all, she puts a hell of a dent in her husband’s finances to buy herself pretty things. But a more sympathetic reading shows her to be a caged bird, beating her wings and struggling to get free from her stifling, prescriptive life. As far as “bad women” go, she was the first one to make me think “There but for the grace of God”…

Sula Peace (Sula – Toni Morrison)

It takes a while for the character of Sula to emerge in Morrison’s critically acclaimed book Sula, but it’s damn worth the wait. Sula completely disregards every expectation of a woman in her position, and openly rejects the social conventions so determinedly upheld by her community. She defies gender roles, she is promiscuous, she is “disfigured” by a birthmark, and she is, above all, deeply independent. Plus she is a woman of colour: I only mention this because WOC antagonists are almost impossible to find in traditionally published fiction. Sula has been hugely influential in the development of feminist literary criticism, and the titular character is something to behold.

Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo (My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante)

I can’t speak to the rest of the Neapolitan series, but Lila from Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a bad woman in the making (a “bad girl” I suppose). Admittedly, she is very beautiful and charismatic, which buys her a certain kind of privilege, but she is also cruel, irreverent, manipulative, and overtly sexual. In the context of a poor town outside of Naples, Lila’s self-determination and bravery is all the more commendable.

Countess Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton)

The “badness” of women is a relative concept, of course. Countess Olenska’s indiscretions in The Age of Innocence might seem laughably benign to us today, but in her own time she was the height of scandal. The way that she spoke, her unconventional tastes, her lack of concern for social convention (clutch my pearls!), and her willingness to think for herself set her apart from the society wives of New York in the 1870s. Wharton wrote Countess Olenska masterfully, combining her brazenness and her tolerance with a deft hand. A bad woman ahead of her time!

Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy)

Fun fact: Tolstoy originally wrote Anna Karenina as a hideously ugly woman, in hopes of making the reader find her as disgusting as he initially did. As he wrote, he found her more and more redeemable, and that’s how she ended up a great beauty. In almost every other respect, though, she remains a bad woman. She seeks love in an affair outside of her marriage, and neglects her children (the “baddest” thing a woman can do). She indulges her own whims and desires in a way that Tolstoy intended for us to find repugnant, but there’s something irresistible about a woman who so determinedly sets fire to her own life.

I must add a couple of honourable mentions: Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, and Irene Adler of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both worthy of the respect we should afford to all bad women. Are there any others I’ve missed? Who are your favourite bad women in fiction? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).







Do You Use Your Local Library?

Last week, I talked about the best book bargains I’ve scored for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s great to buy books and I love the thrill of the hunt, but purchasing books can be out of reach (for one reason reason or another) for a lot of people. Mindful of that, I thought this week we could talk about a fantastic alternative. Do you use your local library?

Do You Use Your Local Library? Keeping Up With The Penguins

If I misbehaved as a kid, my mother’s go-to threat was “I won’t take you to the library this week!”. (Yes, I was a huge nerd.) It worked every time; I loved the library. There was a restriction of ten books per card per fortnight at the time, so I forced both of my parents to get library cards as well – that allowed me to get 30 books per fortnight (yes, I was a huge nerd) and gave me a life-long love of gaming the system. I visit my current local library less frequently now (and I’m certainly not checking out 30 books at a time!), but my love of those quiet buildings packed with books has never quite left me.

Why use your local library?

For the obvious reason, of course: you can read as much as you like, for free! If you’re a would-be booklover but hesitant about the financial outlay of stocking your own shelves, the library has thousands of books that are all yours (temporarily) for the low, low cost of filling out a form.

Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of new books released each year so it’s hardly possible for your local library to stock every single one, but I guarantee you that if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can use their request service (every library has one). They might be able to get it for you through their library network (libraries in the same area or the same state can exchange books as required to meet their patrons’ needs). Or, failing that, they will special-order it for you from the publisher. At no cost to you. Isn’t that fantastic? The only downside might be a bit of a wait for a super-popular new release, but that seems like a small price to pay.

Bonus: your local library probably gives away older or surplus books for free as well. I know mine does; they set up a table out the front and just leave stacks of books for passers-by to take as they will. I’ve picked up a couple of great books this way, so I always detour past the library when I’m in the area to check it out.

If you’re not sure what you’re after, I can also guarantee you that the staff at your local library will be able to help. They are huge book-lovers themselves, so when they have a moment ask them if they can recommend a book to you. They’ll probably do you one better, and fetch you an armful of recommendations tailored to your preferences. Librarians are amazing people; they are an extended support network for people from all walks of life (just ask them about the work they do helping job seekers print resumes, or teaching baby boomers how to use technology), and they are big supporters of important anti-censorship causes (like Banned Books Week).

If you’re still not convinced that you should use your local library, let’s see if I can help some more…

“But I use an e-reader, so libraries aren’t for me!”

That’s where you’re wrong (no offence). Libraries are doing their best to keep up with the times, despite ongoing cuts to their funding (grrrr). Most, if not all, libraries have some kind of scheme in place for eBook loans. A lot of them even offer the devices themselves to borrow if needed. The eBooks you get through the library have been quality controlled, which is a helluva lot better than taking a gamble on a download that might be displayed in tiny font and riddled with typos. With an e-reader and a library card, you can usually arrange to borrow books online without even having to leave your couch. The books will be automatically “returned” from your device at the end of your borrowing time, meaning no late notices or special trips to make returns. It’s the best of both worlds!

Even beyond eBooks, libraries will often offer access to all kinds of paywall content. In the “old days”, they would have subscriptions to hard-copy newspapers and magazines and keep them on site for visitors to read. Now, your library card can grant you access to subscription outlets online. Make sure to ask the library staff what they have on offer!

“What about the authors? I like to buy books so they get their cut.”

That’s really admirable, and I take my hat off to you. As I said last week, I’m a big believer in compensating creators for their work. But that doesn’t mean that your local library is off-limits…

Australia has what’s called “lending rights”, a program that allows eligible writers and publishers to receive royalties for repeated free usage of their work (as is the case with a library). So, even though there’s no cost to you, the creators still get what they’re owed.

For international Keeping Up With The Penguins readers, it might not be the case where you live – the U.K. and Canada have a similar scheme, as far as I know, but it’s all a bit of a mystery to me. A quick spot of Googling should be able to get you some answers, or you can (of course) always ask a librarian!

“Libraries are for kids, I’ve outgrown them.”

Have you checked out your local library’s events schedule? You can usually find it on your local government’s website, or check out the bulletin board at the library building. They have stacks of events every month, and there’s a good chance that a lot of them are aimed at adults. They host everything from author readings and signings, to writing and technology workshops, to movie screenings, to local meet-ups and get-togethers. Best of all, the events are usually free, or very low cost.

The library is great for a lot of adulting; have you ever tried working there? This is especially handy for freelancers and people who work remotely. Libraries offer a quiet, climate-controlled oasis in a desert of busy neighbourhoods and crowded houses. Free wi-fi access is standard across library networks, along with free/cheap computer access, printing and scanning. Larger libraries can even provide meeting rooms to members, if you need to collaborate with or present to others.

Bonus: being that your local library is a government building, they typically accommodate all accessibility requirements. For people with limited mobility, this can be a huge relief! These buildings are designed specifically for wheelchair access, and other mobility aids as well. This is a great reason to consider hosting an event at your local library if accessibility for your guests could be a concern.

“My nearest library is hours away, it’s not worth the trip!”

Australia is big, so it’s not uncommon that your local library is more than a stroll around the corner. Again, I’m not sure of the situation internationally, but I know that a lot of Australian libraries make special considerations for people who live in very remote areas. They might offer to extend borrowing periods for instance (if you have to drive five hours into town to return a book, doing it every two weeks can be a pain in the arse, after all). Some will even post your books out to you – you guessed it – for free. Finding out what they can do for you is as easy as contacting them online or giving them a call; they are usually only too happy to help. After all, they’re there for you!

As I said, my love of the local library has never really left me. I’m constantly amazed at what they manage to do for their communities with the trickle of funding they now get from our governments. Do you use your local library? Why/why not? Let me know in the comments below (or let’s chat about it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



7 Books that Gave Us Words and Catch Phrases We Use Every Day

Ever been stuck in a no-win situation? A ridiculous double-bind? Found yourself hamstrung by bureaucracy? Maybe you’ve been charged a fee for not having enough money in your account, or found yourself unable to get a job without any experience, or denied tenancy in a new apartment without a current personal address. You might have called the situation a “catch-22”, even if you’ve never read the book that gave us the term (maybe you never even knew it was from a book, no judgement!). So many words and idioms slip into our language, but how often do we really know where they come from? Check out these seven books that gave us words and catch phrases we use every day.

Books That Gave Us Words and Catch Phrases - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

As I’ve just mentioned, a catch-22 is widely understood to mean a predicament where the very nature of the problem prevents it from being resolved. It originated with Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22: the main character, Yossarian, wants to be excused from flying any more missions in the military (because every time he pilots a military plane, he risks death). He finds himself butting up against “catch-22”: pilots who are declared mentally unfit do not have to fly any more missions, but pilots who request to be declared mentally unfit are clearly of sound mind (as they want to avoid dying), so they must fly. Fun fact: the book might have actually been called Catch-18 (sounds funny, doesn’t it?), as that was Heller’s original title, but he and his publisher agreed to change it when other novels featuring the number eighteen in their title appeared around the same time. (I’ve reviewed Catch-22 in full right here!)

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

If someone is referred to as “Jekyll and Hyde”, generally we understand that they have two distinct personalities: one gentle, refined and well-behaved, the other hedonistic, violent and hostile. This is lifted directly from the plot of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where the well-respected Dr Jekyll invents a scientific process by which he morphs into Mr Hyde, allowing him to indulge his aberrant urges without fear of losing face (check out my review here for more details!).

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

I had to triple-check this, because it didn’t seem right, but believe it or not it was Dickens who gave us the word “boredom”! English-speakers had been using the word “bore” for about a century, but Dickens was the first to turn the feeling into a noun. It appeared in his 1853 novel Bleak House. How on Earth could we have lived without a word for that? Thank you, Dickens!

Cabbages and Kings – O. Henry

What would you call a tropical nation with an unstable government and an over-reliance on the export of a single product? A “banana republic”, of course! The term is drawn from the novel Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it is set in the fictional “Republic of Anchuria” in Central America. The Republic’s primary export was – you guessed it – bananas. Funnily enough, the title of the book was itself drawn from The Walrus and The Carpenter, a poem that appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I still remember my mother explaining to me the meaning of the phrase “a pot calling the kettle black”. As I recall, she said that it meant to accuse someone of something that you’re doing yourself – which is pretty much spot on. What she didn’t tell me (not that I blame her) was that the idiom was popularised by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Don Quixote back in the 17th century. He lifted it from the common understanding at the time that both pots and kettles made of cast-iron would get black with soot in the kitchens of the era. It’s pretty bloody enduring as far as idioms go, because we still use it today, some four centuries later!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Remember I mentioned Alice in Wonderland just before? Well, it warrants its very own spot in this list! Among a whole bunch of funny turns-of-phrase (“through the looking glass”, “down the rabbit hole”, “Cheshire cat smile”, “off with her head”) we get “mad as a hatter” – meaning seriously bonkers! Well, to put it more politely, someone is “mad as a hatter” if they’re behaving erratically, speaking nonsense, or displaying any kind of unusual behaviour. Carroll borrowed the idea from a well-known phenomenon of hat manufacturers being struck down with mercury poisoning (yes, that was a thing). In so doing, he created his character The Mad Hatter, and a phrase that was cemented into the English language.

1984 – George Orwell

A lot of the phrases from 1984 are getting extra air-time at the moment, as a lot of Orwell’s predictions seem to be coming eerily true. Of course, we all understand the concept of “Big Brother” – the totalitarian dictator, always watching and thus completely controlling his society.  Orwell also created “Newspeak”, a fictional language that gave us gems like “doublethink” (being able to hold two contrary or opposing ideas at the very same thing). We really do owe him a lot!

Even if you never read a single one of these books, at least you can give a smug smile every time you use one of the phrases, knowing that you’ll be able to explain the origins of them if anyone asks (and even if they don’t!). Are there any words or phrases from literature that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments (or use them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



Cha-Ching! Best Book Bargains

Starting the Keeping Up With The Penguins project presented a bit of a problem: books ain’t cheap. I set myself a limit of $10 per book, but even if I stuck to that 100% I would still end up spending north of a grand. Plus, in my soul, I’m a firm believer in compensation for artists. Getting the books cheaply is great for me and everything, but authors should get paid what they’re worth for their work. On top of that, I adore independent and second-hand bookstores. Every dollar that I spend with them means employment for the creative writing student, and bills paid for the small business owner, and support for small presses, and opportunities for emerging writers.

So, my life for the last year has been a delicate balancing act: finding books that fit within my budget, while upholding my own ideals about the book industry. I love the thrill of the hunt – nothing compares to finding a long-sought-after tome buried in a bookstore bargain bin, especially when you can take it home in exchange for just the shrapnel that you have in your pocket. It turns out I have a real knack for it! There’s a perception that buying books through smaller and independent retailers means spending more: I’m here to prove that’s not the case! I thought I’d share a few of the best book bargains I’ve found for Keeping Up With The Penguins.

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Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula was one of my first bargain bin finds, and I walked home afterwards on cloud nine! I spied it at my local secondhand bookstore, marked at the princely sum of $3.

Dracula - Bram Stoker - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

I’ll admit I broke the budget with this one, but I feel it’s justified! Technically, my $10 limit was just for The Picture of Dorian Gray, but this book contains everything that Oscar Wilde ever wrote, so if I average it out… it was a steal! I found this one in a tiny crammed bookstore in Tel Aviv (of all places!) while on my honeymoon. I paid 50 shekels, which converted to roughly $20 back home.

Used Book Store - Tel Aviv - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

When I set out to find Yes Please, I thought it’d be a fool’s errand. Poehler had reached peak popularity at the time, for her performances in Saturday Night Live during the American election. But I struck gold! I spotted her memoir in the window of my local secondhand bookstore, marked at $10 (right on budget!). It was super-early and they weren’t open yet, and I had to go into the city – so I messaged my husband immediately and made him promise to be waiting outside the door when the owner arrived, to secure it before someone else did. Because he loves me, he did just that, and that’s how it came to be this week’s review!

Yes Please - Amy Poehler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

I got the best kind of bargain for Moby Dick: it was free! I actually “borrowed” (re: stole) it from my husband’s collection. Of course, in doing so, I ended up with a copy so excessively worn and dog-eared that I was scared to open it, lest it fall apart. Still, it (miraculously) held up, and it served me well!

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

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Book Thief was #1 on the Dymocks 101 list of 2016, so I knew finding a bargain copy was just a matter of patience. When a book is announced as a winner of any kind, there’s a rush to buy it and everywhere sells out, then there’s a lull as everyone reads it, and then eventually it starts showing up in garage sales and secondhand bookstores. Sure enough, I managed to pick up The Book Thief about twelve months after its nomination for just $4.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

I actually bought this one many years before Keeping Up With The Penguins was even conceived. I was picking up something else entirely from Big W in the small regional town where I lived at the time, and I spotted The Hunger Games marked down to just $2.37. I’d heard of the book and figured I’d want to read it one day, so I grabbed it. And, what do you know, I finally got around to it!

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

My purchase of A Passage To India is notable simply for the fact that I don’t often buy hardcovers, but this one was such a bargain I couldn’t resist! I find hardcovers bulky and annoying a lot of the time (even though many of them are beautiful, drool!). Still, when I spied this beautiful, perfect, pristine edition in that ever-giving local bookshop, I couldn’t resist! An absolute bargain at just $7.

Now, just because I’m a local bookstore fiend doesn’t mean there aren’t cracking deals to be found through the bigger retailers. I’m not that much of a snob! 😉

Dymocks tends to run some fantastic 3-for-2 promotions, and I’m always keeping an eye out for deals on the Penguin Classics (particularly when they come with the gorgeous Penguin merch!).

Another hot tip: Amazon actually has hundreds of classics available for free on Kindle! Works that have passed into the public domain (after their author has been deceased for 75 years) are downloadable for free, or at least very cheaply! If you’re hung up on hard copies, though (like I am!), you can still get some amazing deals. Check out all the freebies here – you’ll be surprised at what you might find!

What’s the best bargain you’ve ever found on a book? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



7 Books You Can Read Over and Over Again

Some books are evergreen: no matter how often you read them over, you’ll get something new out of them every single time. Plus, there’s something super-comforting about reading a familiar story, knowing its characters inside out and chuckling at your favourite joke for the fiftieth time. Often, we form our impressions of these books in childhood, and returning to them later gives us a nostalgic rush. Other times, it might be a book that strikes us as so significant, so funny, so insightful, so relevant, or so heartbreaking that we can’t help but return to it time after time. To celebrate these beloved books, this week on Keeping Up With The Penguins we’ll take a look at seven books you can read over and over again.

7 Books You Can Read Over and Over - Black Text in Transparent White Box Overlaid on Image of Girl in Pink Dress Reading on Carriage in Green Grass - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

This is a selfish addition to this list, I’ll admit, because I reviewed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves just this week, and I absolutely fucking loved it. I cannot recommend it highly enough! Even though I think your true enjoyment of this book is predicated on the plot twist that occurs about a third of the way in (don’t click through to the review unless you’ve already read it!), I think I’ll still enjoy reading it over and over again. Indeed, early passages have new meaning when you know what’s coming. Plus, it’s just so damn funny and heart-wrenching in equal measures that I won’t be able to help coming back to it. (Read my full review here… if you’re ready for it!)

1984 – George Orwell

I talk about George Orwell’s 1984 a lot here on Keeping Up With The Penguins because it is one of my favourite books of all time and it is the ever-fucking-giving-tree of relevance and significance. I’ve re-read it at least a dozen times, and every time something new jumps out at me. One time, I got really hung up on how it expressed the idea that history is written by the victors. Another, I was struck by what Orwell was saying about human relationships, and the context in which they occur. On my very first reading, back when I was a teenager, I had a Black Mirror-esque freak-out about the idea of technology watching us (that was in the days before smart phones, little did I know…). What I’m saying is that you’ll never get tired of re-reading 1984, and there’s always something new to chew on.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

My review of Jane Eyre is coming soon on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but for now suffice it to say that this book convinced me – now and forever – that Charlotte is by far the superior Brontë. Jane Eyre is beautifully written, and should be read and re-read for its masterful storytelling alone. Beyond that, though, it has all the makings of a favourite classic: romance, mystery, adventure, injustice, and conflict. I’ll turn to this book in times of need, like a hot bath or a stiff drink.

Harry Potter (Series) – J.K. Rowling

OK, I’m cheating – firstly, this is actually a series of seven books, and secondly, I think just about every bookworm my age has already re-read the Harry Potter books at least a couple of times. I myself read them to the exclusion of just about all else for a couple of years. I’m not sure they meet the mandate of giving the reader something new every time, but Harry Potter defined a generation of readers. Even now, it’s great to flick through them, remembering how it felt to read them with wonder for the first time. It’s so funny to see kids “discovering” the series now, declaring their Hogwarts houses on their Instagram bios and getting lightning bolt tattoos (it’s probably the same way our parents felt when we all discovered ’80s pop).

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

If Harry Potter cheats the mandate, I can guarantee you that Moby Dick does not. You will never run out of new shit to find in this rabbit warren of a book. It is six hundred pages of mostly digression, with Melville’s thoughts running off in every which direction. Even if we set aside the actual content, Melville’s experimentation with style and form and narrative perspective can keep you busy for at least a few re-reads. Every time you pick it up, you’ll find some new poignancy to your own life circumstances, and the world around you, because it’s just so broad that you couldn’t possibly not find something to relate to. Give it a try (like I did)!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

When I first started telling people that I was reading my way through the List of popular and classic books, no fewer than six of them asked me whether The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was on it. It’s been recommended to me far more than any other book, and it’s a long-time favourite of so many readers. It’s not hard to see why: “the adventures of the last surviving man following the destruction of Earth” is a pretty compelling premise! It is equal parts hilarious, quotable and brilliant. Another one to turn to when you’re feeling down, or need to find some comfort in its familiarity.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Eagle-eyed Keeping Up With The Penguins readers will know that my first shot at Wuthering Heights didn’t go so great. I had a lot on my mind at the time, and just lacked the emotional strength to fully immerse myself in Emily Brontë’s story of love (and incest, and madness, and fear) on the moors. That said, I can totally see myself returning to this story a hundred times over and still finding buried treasures that take me by surprise. Wuthering Heights is definitely evergreen, as the decades of academic analysis online can attest. Cathy and Heathcliffe aren’t done with me yet!

Of course, any book can be read over and over again – there’s probably as many evergreen books as there are readers, because everyone will feel differently about what each books means to them. What books can you read over and over again? Let me know in the comments below (or share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



Remember These? Books From High School That You Should Revisit

I didn’t exactly hide the fact that I thought The Great Gatsby sucked. In fact, I disliked it so much that I spent a lot of time wondering why so many of my fellow students were forced to read it in high school (I have no idea how I escaped that particular rite of torture, I guess I’m just lucky). For a lot of us, being forced to read books in high school was the pits. It probably left a bad taste in your mouth when it comes to a lot of the classics on The List. After all, non-negotiable enforced reading isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying and engaging with a story. Plus, as teenagers, how many of us actually had the perspective to understand the themes in Gatsby – or, indeed, any of the other classics bestowed upon us by the evil overlords of English teaching departments? Still, we’re all older and wiser now, so maybe there’s some value in giving them a second chance. Here’s a list of books from high school that you should revisit.

Books From High School That You Should Revisit - White Chalk Text On Image of Black Board - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

I had a quick peruse of the internet, and it would seem that a lot of other bloggers and experts agree with me: The Catcher in the Rye is definitely a book from high school that you should revisit as a grown up. I never actually read this one in high school either, but I reviewed it for Keeping Up With The Penguins and really enjoyed it. Sure, it’s a coming-of-age story, but Salinger didn’t actually intend for it to be a young adult novel so it’s certainly suitable for an adult audience. Holden Caulfield is a perfect caricature of every young man you’ve ever met, and if nothing else you get to enjoy that in a really patronising way (“ah, aren’t young people silly?”).

Looking For Alibrandi – Melina Marchetta

I know we probably couldn’t call it a “classic” by any means, but Looking For Alibrandi is the first book that comes to mind when I think about high school reading lists. Teachers always assigned this one thinking that we’d really relate to Josie’s struggles with family, identity, responsibility and culture. I’m not sure how much I could “relate” per se, but I did really enjoy it at the time, and I can tell you that it really holds up – even now, more than two decades after its publication. It’s a bit niche in the sense that it is very specific to the Australian context, so I have no idea whether international readers would be able to get into it. Still, anything’s worth a try! (And if you’re an international reader who’s given it a go, please let me know what you thought in the comments!)

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Now, more than ever, storytelling that explores our understanding of race and power is vital – regardless of whether you’re fourteen or forty. If you read To Kill A Mockingbird carefully, you’ll notice that, even though the story is mediated through the experiences of young people, Scout recounts it as an adult; it’s one long flashback, and a nifty narrative style. You’re in a position, as an adult, to pick up on things like that, and you’ll appreciate the prose all the more for it. Plus, you might want to give yourself a refresher if you’re planning to read Go Set A Watchman, set twenty years after the events in the original book.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is usually assigned in high schools to teach teenagers a valuable lesson about censorship and government power, but it’s about so much more than that (as Bradbury has said himself). You’ll find a lot more to chew on here when you revisit it as a grown up, and you don’t have an English teacher standing over your shoulder telling you what to look for. Bonus: it’s a short and easy read (most editions don’t run more than 150 pages), so even if you haven’t learned to love it with age, at least it will be over quick!

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

I don’t think I read The Crucible in high school, but I do recall watching the film; indeed, I got full marks on my assignment to write and perform a monologue from the perspective of one of the characters, so I remember it very fondly 😉 Given how many men have called out current events as being “witch hunts” over the past year, it’s great to take a look back at this fictionalised account of what went down in Salem. Or you know, you can try to read more into the allegory that Miller wrote into the story (you probably know what McCarthyism actually is now, so it’ll make a lot more sense).

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

I once heard an English teacher say that if she had to teach Lord Of The Flies one more time, she’d do something unseemly with that pig’s head. It is pretty ubiquitous in the classroom, presented as a kind of cautionary tale for kids that might think they can handle life without adult supervision. That much is clear to you as a teenager, but revisiting it as a grown up reveals so much more to the story. It’s definitely one to make you ponder the bigger issues of individual responsibility, groupthink, authority, humanity’s capacity for darkness… all that stuff we think we already know as teenagers, until we grow up and realise we don’t have a damn clue. Lord Of The Rings is good for all of that, trust me!

Revisiting books from high school is great; you enjoy them all the more, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be a test after. You might even get a nice nostalgic kick out of re-reading books that you first encountered as a wide-eyed impressionable youngster, and marvel at how much you’ve changed since then. Have you revisited any books from high school? Did you find any new favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or post your list over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read

There’s no use hiding it: we all pretend to have read books we really haven’t. Mark Twain once famously described a “classic” as a book that people praise and don’t read. These fibs aren’t such a big deal when you’re having a casual chat with your family over lunch, or talking to a stranger at a bus stop… but what about the high-stakes of a first date? Favourite books are a go-to conversation starter, but what if you’ve never read their beloved Hemingway or Faulkner? It could through your perceived compatibility with that hottie into peril. It’s fake-it-or-make-it time! To save you dashing to the bathroom to read a Wikipedia summary, I’ve put together a cheat sheet: here’s what to say to your Tinder date about books you never read.

What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read - Black Text in Yellow Square on Image of Couple Sitting In The Sun - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Don’t say: “It’s all about the monster within, you know?”
Do say: “Ah, the prototype for doppelgänger literature!”

Luckily, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is popular and enduring enough to have become a cultural catchphrase, so you probably know more about it than you think. It’s a super-short novel (closer to a novella), and yet it’s packed to the rafters with symbolic meaning, so it can be described as a metaphor for just about anything you want. Bonus points if you reference my favourite interpretation: that Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and the emergence of Mr Hyde was a metaphor for his rampant gay sex drive. You might even get the chance to take the intellectual upper-hand if your date calls it “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”; Stevenson intentionally (and infuriatingly) excluded the preposition from its official title.

I’ve actually posted a full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde just this week, so you can check that out if you need more detail.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

Don’t say: “I just love how Hemingway would show, not tell!”
Do say: “While it lacks Hemingway’s characteristic sparseness, it’s a fascinating insight into the changing role of men after the First World War, isn’t it?”

The Sun Also Rises isn’t my favourite from Hemingway’s collected works, but a lot of people love it so it might crop up in conversation. If you can, steer the conversation towards the origins of the story in Hemingway’s own life. No one’s quite sure whether Hemingway was rejected from the military due to poor eyesight, or whether he just wussed out of being a soldier and snagged a position as an ambulance driver instead; either way, themes of rejection and cowardice and male insecurity are heavy in all of his work. The Sun Also Rises is a “roman à clef” (a true story dressed up as fiction) based on the lives of Hemingway and his friends in the “Lost Generation”.

Hint: Hemingway is famously nicknamed “Papa”, so you’ll sound like a real literary insider if you call him that now and then.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Don’t say: “That’s the one about the whale, right?”
Do say: “Although his masterpiece is a harder slog for the contemporary reader, Melville was undoubtedly superior to Hawthorne.”

If your Tinder date says that Moby Dick is their favourite book, you can be pretty confident you’ve found someone who’s super patient and very persistent. After all, they finished and (apparently) loved a 600-page epic set on board a 19th century whaling ship. Melville experimented with perspective, narrative technique, chronology, and just about everything else that makes a book a book, so Moby Dick is a really tricky read. Like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there are so many different meanings and interpretations of Moby Dick that you can make up pretty much anything you like and it will probably sound alright. If you want to seem like you really have your finger on the pulse, talk about the significance of the work in the present-day context of climate change. Captain Ahab’s attempts to bring the white whale into submission drove him mad and ultimately led to his demise, which could be a metaphor for humanity’s struggle to control and dominate the environment.

Ulysses (James Joyce)

Don’t say: “It’s, erm, a really hard read, isn’t it?”
Do say: “The focus on his delivery and his experimentation with form and style have really detracted from a true understanding of the work in the popular consciousness.”
Alternative do say: “How about I buy us another round?”

If you ask them, the Ulysses-lover will probably tell you that they are also patient and persistent, but beware: you might find that they’re pretentious and a little bit snobby as well. Ulysses is notorious for being one of the most difficult English-language books in the history of literature, and I see no shame in ‘fessing up that you’ve never read it (and probably never will). If you’re really determined to show off for them, however, you could ask them how they think it compares to Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s novel was, in effect, a response to Joyce’s Ulysses, mirroring its style and form. Both take place over a single day, written in a hectic stream-of-consciousness style, focusing primarily on the lives of two central characters while others weave in and out.

Alternatively, you can simply insist on buying another round an change the subject entirely. It’s up to you.

As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)

Don’t say: “There’s so many different narrators, it’s too hard to keep track!”
Do say: “Faulkner is so skillful in the way he truly immerses the reader in the culture and vernacular of communities completely foreign to the mainstream.”

Faulkner famously claimed that As I Lay Dying was written and published in a single draft. He said that he wrote the whole thing in six weeks, while working his day job in a power plant. Either he’s a real show-off, or a damn dirty liar. Still, he’s probably the most renowned author of the Southern Gothic genre, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature. As I Lay Dying tells the story of the death and funeral of a Southern matriarch, through the perspective of fifteen different characters in her family and community. The overriding message is that dying can be a relief from the suffering one experiences in life, and families are bonkers.

Bonus tip: pretty much every Faulkner novel features a death and/or a funeral of some kind, so if your date starts talking about any of his other works, just ask him what he thought about Faulkner’s depiction of funeral rites in that context. Works like a charm! Plus, you can read my review of As I Lay Dying right here, if you want to make sure you’ve got it locked and loaded.

If you’re wondering what to say to your Tinder date and the book they mention isn’t listed here, do what I always do when I’m stuck: ask a lot of questions. People love talking about themselves and why they love what they love, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get them on a roll. Make sure you come back here as soon as the date is over and let me know which one I missed, so I can update this post accordingly! (You could also put out a cry for help over at KUWTP on Facebook!)




This Guy!: The Most Unlikeable Narrators in Literature

It’s all well and good for an author to write a book with a likeable narrator, don’t you think? Kind, empathic, brave, warm, honest, well-meaning, and funny narrators jump off the page. They’re the type of people we aspire to be, or at least befriend. On the other hand, it takes a special set of skills to write a book from the point of view of a truly despicable person. Unlikeable narrators do things that we readers would never dream of doing, admit to things that make our skin crawl, and (in the case of narrators that are both unlikeable and unreliable) make us question whether we should even believe the story they’re telling us. And yet, we don’t throw the book across the room. Sometimes, we even enjoy them enough to list them among our favourites, or chalk them up as classics of literature.

I thought about that a lot as I read A Clockwork Orange for this week’s review. I like to think I’m generally a pretty forgiving reader, but there are least a few narrators that have really horrified, disgusted and angered me. So I’ve put together a Keeping Up With The Penguins list of the most unlikeable narrators in literature. Prepare to raise your hackles…

The Most Unlikeable Narrators in Literature - White Text in Red Square over an image of a Man in a Brown Coat Walking Away - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alex (A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess)

If you’ve seen the film adaptation, you may think you’re familiar enough with the misdeeds of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Let me tell you’re now: you’re in no way prepared for reading chapter after chapter of extreme graphic violence from Alex’s own perspective. Alex is the instigator of vicious assaults, violent rapes, and all manner of hideously anti-social behaviour. What makes it worse is that he knows all the while that what he’s doing is wrong (“you can’t have a society with everybody behaving in my manner of the night”), and yet he’s simultaneously full of self-pity and wide-eyed confusion as to why anyone would want to “cure” him. It all makes for an extremely confronting read.

Humbert Humbert (Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov)

Humbert Humbert was the first narrator who made me feel truly disgusted, as far as I can recall. Bear in mind that he is a sexual predator who fetishises the twelve-year-old Lolita, trying desperately to convince the reader that it was in fact she who seduced him (ick) and that his love for her is simply mischaracterised as perverse. It is a true credit to Nabokov that Lolita remains a fascinating, beautiful read – albeit one narrated by a truly abhorrent man. (Humbert Humbert got what was coming to him in the end, though, and that always feels good.)

John Self (Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis)

John Self is perhaps a lesser-known example of the unlikeable narrator, but he is well deserving of his place on the list nonetheless. Amis had his work cut out for him in Money: A Suicide Note, crafting a protagonist that captured all of the hedonism and excess of the late 20th century. John Self eats, smokes, drinks, and fucks himself into oblivion for the entire duration of the novel. His hubris is (of course) his downfall; his business associate swindles him, and his entire orgy of consumption collapses around his ears in the end. John Self is not the kind of man you would want to invite to dinner, but Money: A Suicide Note is artfully written.

Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth)

Alexander Portnoy is often lumped into the same category as John Self, but really he’s more of a “love him or hate him” kind of guy. Portnoy’s Complaint reads as a monologue of Alexander’s frustrations, as described to his psychoanalyst. He describes his life as being akin to living “in the middle of a Jewish joke”, complete with a domineering mother, an urgent sex drive, and a heaping serve of guilt. It’s hard to look away, the obscenity certainly draws your eye, but it’s equally tough to shake the nagging repulsion one feels for Alexander.

Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger)

Personally, I kind of liked Holden Caulfield, but that was mostly due to the nostalgic kick I got out of his character being so similar to the angry teenage boys I knew growing up. Holden is miserable, self-pitying, angry, vague, prone to flights of fancy, and – most of all – he shits on everything. In The Catcher in the Rye, he represents everything that everyone dislikes about self-centered teenagers, and his unrelenting whinge-fest can certainly grate on the nerves. He lacks the true darkness of other, more mature characters on this list, but he is certainly unlikeable in his own way.

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis)

I would be remiss if I didn’t include Patrick Bateman on this list of unlikeable narrators, he’s basically the poster-child for them: detail-oriented, stylish, aloof, and filled to the brim with murderous rage. He has a real penchant for torture, dreams up particularly gruesome methods to kill, and to top it all off he targets the most vulnerable women he can find… or does he? We never quite get to the bottom of Bateman’s psychopathology, and the reader’s frustration at the end of the novel is probably enough on its own to make him deeply unlikeable (you know, in the event that you can get past the whole chainsaw-a-sex-worker-to-death thing).

So, why do we even read these books? These are no-good, very-bad people, after all. I think, in large part, it’s because we find them interesting. They’re so far removed from what we experience every day, the types of people we know and love, and that makes them fascinating. What do you think? Do you have a “favourite” unlikeable narrator? Let me know in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).



What Book Makes You Ugly Cry?

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I made a confession: I actually got a little teary reading the book for this week’s review! Still Alice is the heart-wrenching story of a woman losing her mind to early-onset Alzheimer’s. I was fine for the most part, until her final student wrote her a letter to thank her for teaching him so well and remind her of all the wonderful things she had done…! Until I found my eyes welling up, I had been pretty sure I was made of stone 😉 It’s super-rare that a book moves me to tears, but I kind of love it when they do. Is there anything more satisfying than a good ol’ cry?

This week, I asked Keeping Up With The Penguins readers what book makes them ugly cry. The answers are really surprising!

What Book Makes You Ugly Cry? Black text in text bubble overlaid on a photo of a woman resting her head on her knees as though crying - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

OK, fine, I wasn’t really surprised by this one. A book that chronicles the relationship of two teens living (and dying) with cancer is pretty much guaranteed to make most readers tear up at some point. In fact, John Green seems to have picked a topic for The Fault In Our Stars specifically designed to pull on the maximum number of heart strings. A doomed romance between two youngsters who should have the rest of their lives ahead of them? Next stop, Ugly-Cry City!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Now, this is more surprising territory! The Bell Jar is on The List and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long time – now even more so, knowing there’s a chance it might thaw my icy heart and draw forth a few tears! Plath’s real-life story is sad enough (she died by suicide barely a month after The Bell Jar was published), and this – her best-known work – draws a lot from her experiences of mental illness.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling

I chuckled appreciatively when one lovely reader confessed to crying in Harry Potter – specifically, the scene where Dumbledore dies (and no, I’m not giving a spoiler alert for that, because if you haven’t read Harry Potter by now…). I don’t remember crying myself, but surely I must have – what kind of monster doesn’t get sniffly when Dumbledore is murdered by Snape… and then again, when we find out the heart-breaking reason why?

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

You might have noticed a bit of a trend emerging here: a lot of the books that make us ugly cry are written for and marketed to young adults. Why is that? Whatever the reason, according to KUWTP readers, we can count E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars among them. This thriller follows the Sinclairs, a wealthy family, as they gather on a private island each summer… but there’s a dark secret (isn’t there always?). This one is also on The List – review coming soon!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Most of us had the privilege of reading Harper Lee’s essential, heart-wrenching classic in high-school (… except for me, but it’s also on The List, so I’ll be making up for lost time soon enough!). Through the eyes of Scout, the young daughter of a criminal defense attorney in 1930s Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird depicts the story of a black man accused of raping a white woman. If the beautiful simplicity of Lee’s prose doesn’t make you cry, you’re guaranteed to at least feel something for the victims of racial oppression in America’s Deep South.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Jumping forward to a contemporary setting, what could be more likely to induce an ugly-cry than a touching father-son story told against the backdrop of the Taliban regime’s ascendancy in Afghanistan? That’s what you’ll find in The Kite Runner. It’s a multi-dimensional story of guilt and redemption, universal themes plonked into the middle of a setting that most of us struggle to imagine. More than one KUWTP reader has found some ugly tears here!

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

And here’s one for the dog-lovers! I’ve got to admit, I haven’t found the courage to read The Art of Racing in the Rain yet – even though I love animals in literature, stories about dogs just pull on my heartstrings too damn hard and I’m a mess for weeks afterwards. According to the blurbs, it follows the story of a race-car driver and his dog; the dog believes that he can be reincarnated as a human in his next life, and sets about doing everything he can to prepare himself for the transition. I can feel myself tearing up just thinking about it…

What book makes you ugly cry? Have I missed your special favourite? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


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