Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 4)

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read

Picking which book you’re going to read next is a tricky business. I don’t know anyone with a 100% success rate. Even if you know exactly what you like, what you’re in the mood for, what gets your motor running, now and then you’re bound to fall victim to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. Still, forewarned is forearmed, and if you can recognise the mistake you’re about to make, you might just be able to squeeze your way around it. Here are the top five mistakes you make when picking your next read (and how to avoid them!).

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read (and how to avoid them!) - text overlaid on an image of library shelves stacked with books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picking A Best-Seller

It’s human nature to find yourself swayed by the “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLER” text you see emblazoned across a cover in an airport bookstore. It’s the power of social proof: when you know that a whole bunch of other people really loved something, your brain tricks you into thinking that you’ll love it too. That’s why publishers assign so much weight to best-seller rankings, and exactly why you shouldn’t! Just because a book sold a bunch a copies in really short period of time, that doesn’t mean it’s worth your money and attention.

How to avoid this mistake? Well, firstly, you should check out my list of best-sellers to avoid 😉 Secondly, make a rule for yourself that you’ll check out the blurb and look up the author before you think about where it ranked. Hopefully, that should be enough to give your brain a healthy dose of skepticism that will steer you in the right direction.

Picking A Book Recommended By A Friend

I fell victim to this mistake myself, just this week! I read and reviewed The Golden Bowl; of course, it was on The List, so I was going to read it regardless, but I’d really hyped it up in my mind because a dear friend highly recommended it. Of course, it turned out to be an absolute stinker (in fact, I’d go as far as to say it was my least favourite of all the books I’ve read so far).

See, friends aren’t always the best gauge of what you’ll love when it comes to books. More often than not, you’ll find that they recommend books that they like, without much consideration as to what you’ll enjoy.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid this one at all. It might be a book that they’ve actually written, or one that’s moved them at a troubled time in their lives, and your obligation as a friend has to override your personal enjoyment of the book – fair enough. But otherwise, thank your friend politely, and tell them you’ll get to it someday; meanwhile, focus on book recommendations from people that you know share your tastes. That’s not always someone you know. It might be a book blogger (ahem!), or someone else that has tastes that align really closely with your own preferences. Either way, it’s a much better litmus test than what your coffee buddy recently read for their book club.


Picking Award Winners

Sure, literary awards can tell you a lot about the artistic merit of a book. I mean, a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer has a certain cachet, after all! But I’m going to say the thing that no one’s supposed to say: just because a book is “good” doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it.

I don’t know why we’re so afraid to admit this! Sometimes, a bunch of really smart people say a book is good, and we just don’t agree with them. Sometimes, an award winner just isn’t worth our time. That’s okay!

To avoid this mistake when picking your next read, try looking instead at books that have won awards for your preferred genre – there are sci-fi awards, and fantasy awards, and romance awards, and awards for just about every other genre you can imagine. That’s a much better indication of whether you’ll enjoy a book than a generic literary prize. Also maybe try looking for awards offered in formats that you know work for you (short stories, experimental fiction, etc.). You could also try looking at authors that have won multiple awards across their body of work. Better yet, you can chuck the nominee lists in the bin altogether, and just go with your instincts!

Picking Classics (Just Because They’re Classics)

I know, it’s kind of ironic that I’m calling this out as a mistake, given that I’ve created a whole blog project around reviewing the classics… however, I would argue that this makes me uniquely qualified to comment on this particular mistake you make when picking your next read. There are plenty of books that I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins purely because I “should”, and I can tell you right now that it is a huge mistake to choose a book on that basis alone.

Much like winning an award, standing the test of time is no guarantee that a book is going to be one that you’ll enjoy, or even one that’s worth your time and money. I think it’s great to read the classics and everyone should give it a go, but try looking for one that will engage you! Look at the blurbs and reviews online, keep an eye out for ones that sound similar to contemporary reads that you’ve enjoyed, and maybe look out for characters, plots and time periods that interest you.




Picking A Book Because You Liked The Movie

At the risk of stating the obvious, I gotta say it: films and books are completely different formats. How you experience a story changes dramatically between the page and the screen, even if the plot and the characters are exactly the same. I know that the generally-accepted wisdom says to read the book before you see the movie, but sometimes it happens the other way around; surely it makes sense to go back and read the book anyway, right? Wrong!

Take, for instance, my own feelings about The Hunger Games. I quite enjoyed the films, but I felt kind of “meh” about the original book. This comes down to the narration, of all things. See, the Hunger Games books were narrated in the first person, with all the “oh, who do I love? woe is me!” internal monologue of the teenage girl protagonist. The movies, however, by their very nature, removed that element from the story, making it much more enjoyable and engaging for me.

The trick here is simply to reject all the pressure to “read the book” – you should free to enjoy the movie or television adaptation for what it is, safe in the knowledge that the book might just fall short of the high standard that’s been set. And I know this isn’t a popular opinion about booklovers, but sometimes the movie adaptations don’t suck!


Have you made any huge mistakes in picking your next read? Did you ever think you’d really like a book for one of these reasons, and end up hating it? Warn me off it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Best TED Talks on Books and Reading

If you’re a living human with an internet connection in the 21st century, chances are you’ve fallen down a rabbit-hole of TED talks at least once. They’re available online, for free, at the click of a button, and there are hundred of talks on every imaginable subject. Having an interest in books and literature, as I (clearly) do, my favourite TED talks often focus on reading and the role of books in the modern world. To save you many hours, I’ve put together a list of the best TED talks on books and reading, so you can watch them at your leisure…

Chip Kidd: Designing Books Is No Laughing Matter. OK, It Is.

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Book designer Chip Kidd gives (hilarious!) insights into the thought process behind designing Alfred A Knopf’s most iconic book covers.

Anne Lamott: 12 Truths I Learned From Life And Writing

 

I have watched Anne Lamott’s TED talk on life and writing at least half a dozen times, and quoted it at least a hundred. She gives us gems like: “if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have treated you better!”. Well worth a watch, for writers and non-writers alike.

Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel: What We Learned From 5 Million Books

 

It turns out, the all-knowing all-encompassing Google has digitised 5 million books – that’s over 500 billion words – and these two smarty pants-es have used the data (everything from date of publication to frequency of phrases appearing over time) to give us incredible insights into humanity, culture, and change.

Ann Morgan: My Year Reading A Book From Every Country In The World

 

I related, on a deep, deep level, to this talk from Ann Morgan. She identified a marked lack of diversity on her bookshelves, and set about reading a book from every country in the world. It sounds like a reasonable-enough goal, but she only gave herself a year to do it, and she’s monolingual – meaning she had to go to extreme lengths to find works translated into English. This is a fantastic TED talk that highlights both the importance of diversity and the role of translators in the publishing world.

Parul Sehgal: An Ode to Envy

 

This one might seem out of place, but watch it and you’ll see why I’ve included it here. Not only does Parul Sehgal delve into the nature of jealousy, but she examines it through the lens of literature… and, come to that, she examines literature through the lens of jealousy. Plus, there’s some awesome for-dummies Proust analysis thrown into the bargain.

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger Of A Single Story

 

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk is probably more focused on storytelling and representation than books and reading per se, but she’s a novelist, so I say it counts! She makes (what should be) a very obvious point about the great danger of “single stories”, and the importance of representation and balance in storytelling and narrative. This is one to make you think about how much you don’t know about what you don’t know.

Brian Dettmer: Old Books Reborn As Intricate Art

 

You might have seen a viral video floating around, about old books made into works of art – this is that guy! Brian Dettmer takes physical books (most often old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and out-of-date medical texts) and carves away at them to create sculptures. He calls it “remixing books”. I still can’t quite wrap my head around how he does it, but the end result is phenomenal either way!

Mac Barnett: Why A Good Book Is A Secret Door

 

And, to end on a light (but touching!) note, as all good TED talks do, this one comes from children’s author Mac Barnett. He talks about the incredible capacity of children to accept things as simultaneously real and make-believe (in a way that is far more articulate and easy-to-understand than I can replicate). Plus, he’s got a few cute anecdotes about his readers, and no one can resist those, right?

Honourable mention to the amazing TED talk that I once saw about the importance of reading aloud to children and the impact that this can have on future literacy… that I can’t find anywhere on the TED website! Argh! If you come across it, please link me to it in the comments below!

Bonus question: do you have a favourite bookish TED talk? Share it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


 

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful

If you can’t handle rejection, then writing is definitely not your game. It takes a certain kind of resilience to persist with your work when everyone you send it to rejects it outright. This week, I reviewed The Martian; Andy Weir was rejected by so many literary agents that he took his destiny into his own hands and self-published his book, making it available (for free!) through his website. Now, just a few years later, he’s a best-selling author, with a film adaptation starring Matt Damon that has taken over $600 million at the box office. This is the type of “overnight success” story that was years in the making, and gives hope to struggling writers everywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the other brave souls that persisted with their rejected books and went on to be ridiculously successful.

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Carrie – Stephen King

Stephen King – now a household name – received thirty rejections from publishers for his first offering, Carrie. One rejection letter read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King was so disheartened, he reportedly threw the manuscript in the bin… but his wife, the story goes, fished it back out and harangued him into giving it another go. Shortly after, King received a telegram that read: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

King went on to sell the paperback rights for $40,000, and Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year… and thus launched one of the most successful literary careers of our time. It just goes to show!

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova sent out the manuscript for Still Alice about 100 times, by her own calculation, and often she didn’t even receive the validation of an actual rejection – many literary agents just didn’t reply to her at all. Fed up, she self-published, and eventually attracted the attention of Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Still Alice hit the New York Times best-seller list, and stayed there for forty weeks. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her starring role in the film adaptation. Genova is laughing all the way to the bank! (Read my full review of Still Alice here!)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

We don’t know exactly how many times The Great Gatsby was rejected by publishers, but we do know that one called it “an absurd story”, and another (bafflingly) suggested that he’d “have a decent book if [he’d] get rid of that Gatsby character”. When publishers are saying that your titular character needs to get in the bin, you’d be forgiven for thinking a career change might be in order!

Still, Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to give up. Today, The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies, been translated into 42 languages, and adapted to six successful films… not to mention being the subject of countless high-school book reports! (Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here!)

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle has spoken publicly about the rejections (26, count ’em!) that she received for A Wrinkle In Time. Apparently, publishers thought that the children’s book dealt “too overtly” with the problem of evil, and that it would be “too difficult” for the juvenile target market. She was 40 years old by the time a publisher finally gave her a shot. A Wrinkle In Time ended up winning the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, as well as selling over eight million copies. It was adapted for television in 2001, and in film earlier this year.



Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

Speaking of children’s books, J.K. Rowling has to have the best told-you-so rejection story of all time! Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually found a literary agent relatively quickly – and it was a ray of hope for Rowling, who had written the story sitting in Edinburgh cafes while she and her daughter lived on public benefits. But despite the agent’s best efforts, the first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times back-to-back. A last-ditch effort saw them send it to an editor at Bloomsbury – and he might never have taken it on if his eight-year-old daughter hadn’t found the first chapters in his office, and nagged him for a copy of the book so that she could read it all. The rest, as they say…

… actually, that’s not all! Despite his daughter’s enthusiasm, the Bloomsbury editor recommended that Rowling “get a day job”, because the sales of Harry Potter were unlikely to pay the bills. She received an advance of just £1,500. That was in 1996; now, 22 years later, the books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide, broken records for fastest-selling books in history, and the film adaptations have grossed over seven billion dollars. Rowling’s “day job” is now roasting trolls on Twitter.

That’s not to say her journey with rejection was over. She penned The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel for adults, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and found herself once again on the receiving end of a bunch of rejection letters. Most editors seemed to think it was “good”, but the market too saturated to take a risk on an “unknown”. When it did get picked up, The Cuckoo’s Calling only sold about 500 copies domestically… until the true identity of the author was revealed, propelling it to the top of the amazon.co.uk best-seller list overnight. Rowling gets the last laugh, once again!

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A popular myth suggests that Joseph Heller decided to name his satirical WWII novel after the twenty-two rejections he received from publishers. That’s not quite true, but it’s accurate in one respect – Heller did, indeed, cop twenty-two rejection letters, one of which actually said: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Ouch!

Heller remained bitter about Catch-22’s reception for the rest of his life, because the zingers didn’t stop once it was accepted for publication. A review in The New Yorker said that Catch-22 “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. What remains is a debris of sour jokes.” Never mind that it went on to sell over ten million copies… I guess you can’t please everyone! (Read my full review of Catch-22 here!)

The Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

William Golding copped a respectable twenty rejections for The Lord Of The Flies. One called it “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” I’m sure there’s plenty of high-school students, forced to read it for English classes, that would agree, but that’s beside the point: the book has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide, it has been adapted into four different films, and it is frequently features on lists of the best books ever written.


Dubliners – James Joyce

Now, I can’t say I blame publishers for taking their time to warm up to James Joyce’s writing. He is, after all, notoriously difficult to read… but it would seem that they more often took issue with his “obscenity” than with his obfuscating prose. He received twenty-two rejections for Dubliners over the course of nine years, but he stuck to his guns. He wrote to one editor (in response to charges of obscenity): “I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties, and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art.” (Oh, yeah, he was also super humble.)

When a publisher did eventually take the bait, his troubles weren’t over. They told him that he wouldn’t receive any royalties for his work unless it sold more than 500 copies. It sold 379 in the first year – Joyce having failed to game the system, even though he bought 120 copies himself. In the vein of that old unappreciated-in-his-time cliche, Joyce is now one of the most influential and regarded writers of the 20th century.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

It’s equally unsurprising that Nabokov had a hard time finding a publisher for Lolita; after all, it’s a dark and disturbing story of obsessive love, kidnapping, and sexual abuse. One editor said of the manuscript: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (Emphasis mine – I added it because damn, that’s cold!)

Lolita was passed over at least five times by major publishers, forcing Nabokov and his agents to look outside the U.S. for publishing partners. Eventually, it was published (in 1955, not even a decade into that thousand years the editor demanded), and went on to sell over 55 million copies. It turns out when revolting stories are beautifully written, the public can forgive a little nausea. 😉

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

I’ve saved the best for last: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance literally holds the record (the Guinness Book of World Records record, to be precise) for the most-often rejected best-seller: knocked back 121 times. Can you imagine the kind of determination it takes to persist through that storm of rejection?

The editor that eventually accepted the story was quite melodramatic about it all: “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for,” he said, and “the book is brilliant beyond belief… it is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.” So, it would seem that wading through that sea of rejections was worth it! I’m sure Pirsig is eternally grateful to have finally found an editor that believes in his work that way.

 

Imagine what kind of world we’d have without Harry Potter, or Lolita, or any of the other book on this list, if those publishers had had their way! Do you have a favourite author rejection story? Tell it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend heavy non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. I took a crack at it here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. But that’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention. Barack Obama has recommended her later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protégé. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work.

Ulysses – James Joyce

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it comes highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence, so maybe I’m going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Oates does concede that it’s “not easy”, but apparently every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort – so there’s some hope yet!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of the Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class.




The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. I didn’t mind it either, check out my review here 😉

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women, and I figure if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me! American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. And J.K. Rowling lists Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, as her favourite character in literature:

“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

– J.K. Rowling

Bonus: as much as Rowling loved Jo March, she actually lists Jane Austen’s Emma as her favourite book of all time (check out my full review here), and says she has read it at least twenty times.


1984 – George Orwell

I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!



What do you think of these book recommendations? Have these brilliant minds missed any of your special favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

How To Remember What You Read

It’s all well and good to read a lot of books. You flip those pages every night before bed, at every bus stop, and on every lunch break. You watch your bookshelf pile up with tomes you’ve torn through in record time. But what good is all that effort if you don’t remember what you read?

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

All respect to Ralphie, but remembering what you read is where it’s at. A friend of mine Tweeted the other day that they got half-way through reading a book and realised they had already read it – and that ain’t good! If you’re in the same boat, you’re in luck, because this happens to be my specialty. See, in a former life, I was a psychology graduate (with first class honours, thank you very much!). When I started thinking about what I could tell my friend on how to remember what you read, my brain instantly whirred into cognitive psychology mode, throwing up theories of memory processing and forgetting curves. The fact that I remember any of that stuff – stuff I read in textbooks over five years ago – should be the proof in this bloggy pudding. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical on you – here are my best, practical tips on how to remember what you read.

How To Remember What You Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Get Familiar

Before you even open a book, you should get familiar with what you’re about to read. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. If you’re about to read the memoir of a prominent member of the French Resistance, you probably want to have some background knowledge on WWII. Likewise, if you’re reading a fictional story set in 19th century London, you’ll understand (and therefore remember) a lot more of what’s going on if you’ve got some basic background knowledge to start off with.

Think of this strategy like fishing with a net: your prior knowledge is the 'net' in your memory, and bits of information from the book are the 'fish'. Without a net, they swim right past you, but if you've got a good strong net in place, you're going to catch (remember) a lot of stuff.Click To Tweet

It doesn’t have to be a long and drawn-out research process. Usually, just reading the introduction is enough – it will usually give you some kind of political and socio-economic context for a work of fiction, or a background on the author and the subject matter for non-fiction. If you want to go a little deeper, you’ve probably got a device in your pocket (or maybe you’re holding it in front of your face right now!) that can connect you to literally everything you might need to know about that book. So, really, it’s not that hard! 😉

I really should have done this myself when I read A Passage To India. There was no introduction in my edition, but I forged ahead without taking the time to research any further, and I ended up having to stop and Google things constantly as I was reading.

Focus!

The idea of remaining actively engaged in a single pursuit for any extended period of time is kind of a joke in the age of instant notifications and the 24-hour news cycle. Believe me when I say, though, that you’ll notice a huge difference in how you remember what you read if you make an effort. Don’t have the TV on “in the background”, don’t check your phone, don’t cook dinner with one hand and hold your book with the other (besides being bad for memory, that’s just dangerous!). Even if you can only give 20 minutes of focused attention per day, or 10 minutes, or 3 precious minutes before your kids wake up, do it. Take whatever time you can to focus wholly and solely on what you’re reading.

In fact, it’s probably better to do it that way. Even without modern distractions, the average human brain has trouble staying completely focused for long stretches, but finds it relatively easy to maintain focus for shorter periods of time. Find whatever time period is optimal for you, and commit to using it for focused reading every day.

Sure, it might take you months to get through a book if you’re reading it in ten-minute bursts, but so what? It’s a huge mistake to get all hung up on reading “fast”. Burning through a book quickly is actually detrimental to your recall. When you space out your reading – a few chapters here, a few chapters there – you force your brain to shift the new information from working memory to long-term storage (because you’re going to need it later when you pick it up again). It’ll stick around in long-term storage for a while, especially seeing as you’re rehearsing the memory every time you go to knock out a few more pages. If you read the entire book in a single sitting, your brain doesn’t need to store as much information – after all, you’re not going to need to remember where to pick it up again, are you? Your brain will abandon all that lovely gooey information in favour of something more valuable that it will actually need later. So, read in short, focused bursts, and you’ll find you retain a lot more.


Think About What You’re Reading

I know, I know, this sounds laughably obvious, but hear me out! You’d be surprised at how many of us read passively, not really thinking about what we’re taking in and just letting the words wash over us. That can feel really good (like mindlessly binge-watching 22 episodes of a ’90s sitcom), but it’s not great if you’ve set a goal of remembering what you read.

So, what’s the easiest way to engage your brain? Challenge it! Find ways to put it to work. Your brain is like a border collie: it wants work to do, and if you don’t give it any, it’s going to run off and find something else to play with (or take a nap in the sun).

Try these tricks to get your brain into gear as you’re reading:

  • Ask yourself questions about what you’re reading as you go. “Why would the protagonist do that? Is it what I would do if I were in her shoes? What do I like about the way this author writes? What’s the point that the author is trying to get across here?” It sounds really basic, but pausing after every few pages and posing a question like this to yourself will force your brain to actively engage with the content to formulate an answer, and that’s, like, nine-tenths of the effort getting it to store the information for recall later.
  • Pause and visualise a scene or a character. Imagine what they look like, what they sound like, and make the whole thing as vivid as possible using the details that the author has given you.
  • Link what you’re reading to things that you already know. That could mean putting the background knowledge to use, or it could simply mean finding parallels between the book and your life experience. Say the author mentions someone’s birthday – see if you can figure out a way to remember that (maybe it’s the same day as your wedding anniversary, or a week before a major public holiday).
  • Stop at the end of each section or chapter, and try to paraphrase what you’ve just read to yourself. What happened? What did the author explain? What new information came to light? What do you need to remember?

Bonus: these tips won’t just help you remember what you read, they’ll also help you understand and apply what you read, so it’s a win-win-win!

Take Notes

For me, this is the most crucial step in remembering what I read. I’m constantly pausing to scribble something down – a great line, a thought I’ve had about a character, something interesting the author has done with perspective… In fact, it was these notebooks full of scribbles that gave rise to Keeping Up With The Penguins! 😉

There are different schools of thought as to whether it’s “okay” (or even optimal) to write in the books themselves – notes in the margins, highlighting or underlining the text, etc. At the end of the day, whether you choose to write in your books is between you and whatever God you believe in. I’m from the school that says writing in books is sacrilegious, and I will never, ever do it as long as I live. That’s why I always have a notebook on me when I’m reading. I never write essays or anything particularly long-winded – it’s mostly bullet-points and diagrams, sometimes a paragraph or two if I’m really moved by what I’m reading.




The most important thing about taking notes is that you take them, regardless of how or where. Find a method that works for you, one that you’re likely to stick with. It might sound like a chore, but if your goal is remembering what you read, this is probably the best thing you can do – writing information down helps you to remember it, whatever your learning style, whatever you’re reading. Plus, you’ll have the notes to refer back to later if the memory doesn’t stick!

Read Out Loud

If “thinking about the book you’re reading” sounded too obvious, then this one undoubtedly sounds too silly.  I mean, what kind of loon reads out loud to themselves, right? Loons that want to remember what they read, that’s who!

Reading out loud gives your brain additional ways to code and retain the information. In addition to remembering reading the words visually, you have the opportunity to remember hearing them, and producing them with your own speech. This is particularly important if you’re an auditory learner (who learns best by listening, rather than by reading), but it will be helpful for anyone. There are a number of other benefits, too: for instance, if you tend to read for speed, reading out loud forces you to slow down and really think about what’s in front of you.

You get bonus points if you re-read and/or repeat crucial parts of books this way. I don’t think it will come as any great surprise that repetition is great for strengthening memory. If there are particular parts of the book that you really need to lock in your mind-safe, try reading them once and taking notes as you go, then going back later and reading the relevant parts out loud to yourself.

Teach Someone Else (Preferably, A Toddler)

There are about a dozen different sayings and quotes about this, and they all boil down to the same thing: you’ll understand and remember something better if you teach it to someone else. That’s because your experiential memory is the strongest kind there is (you’re more likely to remember something you experience than something you read), so you should really be taking advantage of that.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman’s technique for remembering what you read included this vital step. The “Feynman Technique” (creative name, eh?) includes choosing and learning about a concept, then doing your best to explain it to a toddler. That will help you identify any gaps in your own understanding, at which point you can return to your materials and review them until you’re ready to try again. Clearly, it worked for him!

The whole idea of explaining it to a toddler, rather than an adult, is that it forces you to condense your learning and simplify the concepts, ensuring that you truly understand what it is that you’re passing on rather than just regurgitating fancy words. If you can’t explain it to a toddler, you probably don’t understand it well.

If you don’t have a toddler on hand, that’s okay – you can still pass on your new-found wisdom. Participate in a book club, or talk to family and friends who have read the book (or comment on a blog… ahem!). Whatever you choose, the very act of discussing the content with someone else gives your brain all the more opportunity to strengthen the memories by associating them with other things (the conversation you have and your experience of it). The more connections your brain makes between the content and your experiences, the stronger your memory and the longer it will last.




Finally, Choose Wisely

Perhaps this should have come first, but I think it’s a good note to end on: choose the right book. You’re going to have a much better shot at remembering something you find interesting and entertaining than you will something that bores you to tears. Make sure you have a clear idea of why you’re reading the book (for fun, for work, for curiosity’s sake), and why you want to remember what you read (to apply it at work, to ace your exam, to improve your own writing). If you’re just reading a book so that you can say that you did, or because “everyone else is reading it”, you probably have no personal stake in it at all. Your chances of remembering it in great detail won’t be good. Move on to another book – one that’s more suited to your tastes and circumstances and needs. You’ll find that memory comes much easier!

The quality of your reading matters infinitely more than the quantity of your reading. As I said in the beginning, it’s all well and good to be the fastest reader in the world… but what are you actually getting out of those 10 books per week? Far better to take your time and really immerse yourself in a book that you love, and get everything out of it that you can, don’t you think? When you do that, and embed some really strong memories of what you read, you get to carry it with you for the rest of your life.


How’s your book recall? Do you use any of these strategies? Do you have any other tips? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

7 Most Boring Tropes In Literature

Have you ever read a book and come across a particular theme, plot device, character type, or cliche story-line that immediately made you roll your eyes? “Ugh, another one of these!”. The offender is probably a trope, and a boring, over-used one at that.

The word trope actually has several meanings, but in this case we’re using it to describe common literary devices, motifs, themes, and cliches. When used well, tropes can be really valuable, helping the reader to understand the writer’s intentions and reference points. Unfortunately, many of them have been used so often and so poorly that the mere hint of them will absolutely ruin an otherwise fine story. What’s worse, some tropes are outright damaging and discriminatory. This week, I’m going to shame the seven most boring tropes in literature.

7 Most Boring Tropes In Literature - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Let’s start with the easiest, most widely decried trope in literature (and movies, and television, and every other medium): the manic pixie dream girl. The pithy name comes from a review of the movie Elizabethtown, back in 2005:

“The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imagination of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Come on, you can probably name at least a dozen of these without even trying: the adorable, quirky, fun-loving girl who is nothing but a ray of sunshine in the life of a retiring young gentleman. She shows him all that is good in the world. Even though he is a miserable bore (and he probably won’t shut up about his screenplay, or his band, or his other miscellaneous “artistic” endeavor), she inexplicably takes a liking to him, and she drags him along on crazy “adventures” that are just, like, so totally random: hiking, karaoke, shuffleboard, hash brownies, spontaneous trips, dive bars, swinger parties, whatever. Think Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Sam from The Perks of Being A Wallflower, or even Augustus from The Fault In Our Stars (yes, lately even boys have been manic pixie dream girls, how lucky for them!).

Ask any random person on the street what they consider to be the most boring trope in literature, and chances are the Manic Pixie Dream Girl will rate a mention.

The Newbie Who Saves The Day

We see this one everywhere, particularly in young adult and fantasy fiction (think Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games), because it’s easy writing that makes for easy reading. Take a thoroughly average protagonist, and throw them into a brand new world – a world of wizards, or a world of luxury, or whatever. They need to learn the ropes quickly, so luckily there’s a cast of supporting characters that have been doing this shit for years, and are miraculously willing to volunteer all their time and knowledge to support the protagonist. See, this way, the reader gets to learn all of the “rules” of the new world right alongside the protagonist, which is a much better read than just pages and pages of straight-up explanation. Neat, eh?

What really bores me, though, is that the newbie (who, remember, has only been there for a minute and has had to take a crash course in magic or fighting or whatever) somehow still manages to save the day. They beat the most notorious dark wizard of all time, or win a reality show by fighting all opponents to the death, or whatever. You’re expected to believe that a completely unqualified, inexperienced, sometimes-talented-but-always-the-outsider protagonist is able to decisively beat the bad guy and prove themselves the Greatest Of All Time. Yeah, oh-kay! (yawn)




This has been done so often, and yet it never once – in my recollection – has seemed realistic. Sometimes that’s okay, because the writing is so good and the story so engaging that you can forgive the use of a hackneyed plot device… but more often than not, it just bores the pants off me. I’d much rather read about a newbie that falls on their face, any day of the week. Or, heck, how about giving one of those “supporting” characters the recognition they deserve?

The Woman Who Is Defined By Her Womb

OK, this is the one that really lights my fuse, so apologies if I sound particularly angry when I say what the heck is up with all the female characters that are defined solely by their wombs?

This particular source of annoyance and boredom can take many forms. It might be the desperate housewife who had children but wishes she hadn’t (forgive me, but that’s the vibe I got from Mrs Dalloway). It could be the woman thrown into the depths of despair by her infertility, and it’s really the only thing that drives her character (hello, The Girl On The Train!). Plus there’s the women that dream of nothing but meeting the “right” man so they can get down to babymaking, the plucky older gals who are “brave” enough to try surrogacy, the beleaguered single mothers, the driven career women who don’t have children and it’s the sole source of conflict in their lives… on and on it goes.

I understand that these are all real issues for women. This trope actually reflects a great number of very real stories. I know a lot of women experiencing these problems personally… and yet, I also know that the state of their womb is never the only facet of their personality. They have other motivations, desires, conflicts, and needs. I’m yet to meet a woman whose whole and sole purpose in life is to be found in her uterus.

This particular trope in literature wouldn’t be such a big deal if male characters were reduced and defined in the same way. Can you name half as many men in fiction who are equally defined by their fatherhood, or lack thereof? I doubt it. Male characters are allowed to just be characters unto themselves, with many and varied flaws – like John Self in Money: A Suicide Note (see my full review). Female characters aren’t granted that “luxury”, and I say boo to that!


Related: I hate the trope in film and television of women going into labour and delivering so fast that they “can’t make it” to the hospital. They end up birthing children in the backs of cabs, in bars, on the sides of roads, at their best friends’ weddings… sure, it heightens the drama, but my goodness, couldn’t they strive for something remotely realistic? In real life, labour can last for days, and women almost never drop a shorty in under 5 minutes. The sooner film and television writers give up that particular trope, the better!

The Dead (or Missing) Girl

Why are we so obsessed with dead (or missing) “girls”? (And, yes, they are always “girls” – fully grown women that we infantilise as part of a gross publishing trend that seeks to deny female characters anything that hints at actual agency.)

This one seems to have become particularly prominent in the last few years (see, once again, The Girl On The Train), but it has been bubbling up in television (think shows like Law & Order: SVU) for much longer than that. Once again, there’s a disturbing misogynist element in this particular trope in literature. I recently heard an interview with Roxane Gay (who I love and admire endlessly), where she said (I’m paraphrasing, forgive me) that dead girls women are very convenient for storytellers, because they are compliant. They don’t cause trouble. They don’t need a character arc, they don’t need to develop, they don’t need motivations or desires or fears, because their sole purpose is to give purpose to a protagonist (the witness, the boyfriend, the detective).

I think this one is going to linger for a while, because it echoes the cultural scripts we have for the behaviour of girls women. All too often, the dead or missing girl was promiscuous, or naive, or annoying, or broke the “rules” in some other way – and she got what was coming to her, right? Personally, I think this trope (in literature, and in real-life media) is super played-out and boring as all hell.

The Buried Gays

This particular trope has a long and storied history; it waxes and wanes, depending on the temperature of the literature community (and society more broadly) at the time. At its worst, it looks like this: simply put, gay characters get tragic endings.

This usually happens in the context of a mostly-straight story. Historically, it happened more often to female characters (indeed, the trope was originally called “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”), but lately authors have been killing off a lot more dudes. The gay character usually dies as a result of AIDS, a homophobic assault, or suicide – all very real issues for the LGBTIQ community (being that they are disproportionately affected by all of these risks), but so over-represented in literature and other media that it becomes boring to the point of the ridiculous. The problem is not the story of gay deaths, it is that only the gay character dies, or that the character dies as a direct result of… well, gay-ness. Key examples would be Jack from Brokeback Mountain, or poor ol’ Dorian Gray.

Thankfully, we’re on a bit of a down-swing with this one at the moment, and we’re seeing more and more popular representations of happy endings for LGBTIQ characters and couples. Still, I think the effects of overexposure to the buried gays trope will linger for me for quite a while…

Poor Communication Kills

I haven’t nailed down exactly where the terrifically punny name for this one comes from (communication skills, communication kills – geddit?), but whoever came up with it should know that I would very much like to buy them a beer.

This particular trope is a little more vague than the others, but it’s still something that drives me up the wall: the primary source of action or plot development is the fact that characters don’t or can’t communicate with one another. Whether the impediment is caused by character (the one with the information being too stubborn or scared or busy to share) or circumstance (the characters being separated by time, distance, or totalitarian governments), it’s the lack of adequate communication that causes conflict and drives the story forward.




Seriously: think of all the times that things would have worked out just fucking fine if the characters had, y’know, actually talked to one another! Romeo and Juliet might have lived happily ever after. Mina probably never would have copped that nasty love-bite from Dracula. If Madame Bovary had just told her husband that their marriage was choking the life out of her… well, she was still pretty nuts, so things might have ended badly regardless, but my point remains valid!

This literary trope has frustrated the heck out of me for quite some time, but now I’ve seen it done so many times that it just bores me. I just want to shout “talk to one another, dammit, and we can be done with this plot a lot sooner!”.

The Henpecked Husband

Every time I encounter one of these, my mind floats back to Everybody Loves Raymond. Now, I don’t ever recall actually watching that show, but I must have seen bits and pieces from it somewhere – because I can picture very clearly in my head how every episode goes: wife wants something reasonable, husband complains and/or makes joke, wife rolls eyes, canned laughter. Every single time.

I don’t get why so many people find this funny or entertaining. We really seem to collectively get off on highly dysfunctional relationships – or, at least, feel sympathy for the poor little man squished under the brutal thumb of the domineering witch. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any of you that I actually love these “awful” wives and mothers – the loud “bossy” women who could rule the world if they didn’t have to waste all their time fixing the problems of their husbands and sons… but that’s a rant for another day 😉

This particular trope in literature stretches all the way back to the Brothers Grimm (remember how Hansel and Gretel’s father abandoned them in the woods because his wife had had a bloody gut-full?), and still floats around today (in fact, I read a couple just recently in The Dressmaker). Granted, we’re making steps towards actually examining these two-dimensional shrill harpies that have bullied their husbands for so long, and I think that’s great to see – mostly because it highlights how truly boring the henpecked husband trope actually is.


I’ll also give an honourable mention to The White Saviour – I’m not the best person to break downs all of the problems associated with this particular trope (as seen in books like The Help), but I want to reassure you that it bores the hell out of me, and encourage you to check out this piece about the white saviour in film.

You may also notice that I’ve not included The Love Triangle on this list – even though there are so many of them, and they’re often so poorly written. The fact is, I think that there are plenty of love triangles that actually work really well, and some that are downright subversive, and some that are just plain fun. I know it’s not a popular opinion, but love triangles don’t bore me (and they’re usually not as damaging as some of the others listed here). And, in the end, isn’t listing a “love triangle” as a loathed literary cliche, in and of itself, a bit of a cliche? 😉

What trope in literature bores you the most? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

10 Movie Adaptations That Don’t Suck

I confess: in addition to being perpetually behind in my reading, I almost never watch movies. Sure, I have a few tried-and-true favourites that I turn to on nights in alone, but for the most part I never get around to actually watching something new. Any time I’m talking to a stranger and a movie comes up, I’m forced to admit that I’ve never seen it, and I spend the next twenty minutes listening to them list reasons that I “absolutely must” look it up on Netflix as soon as I get home. It’s not a fun way to live, guys! I bring this up because I’m reading my way through a list of classic and popular books, and many of them have (unsurprisingly) been adapted for the big screen. Before I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I could have counted the number I’d seen on one hand. This week, all that changes! I carved out a few precious hours and finally dug into that Netflix queue, just so I could bring you this: my (probably incomplete but still valid) list of movie adaptations that don’t suck.

Movie Adaptations That Don't Suck - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Dressmaker

I figured that the subject of this week’s review was as good a place to start as any. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham was published in 2000, a gothic novel set in a fictional Australian town of the 1950s. The film adaptation, starring Kate Winslet and Hugo Weaving, was released over a decade later, in 2015. I know it’s a cardinal sin for a book-lover to admit this, but I think that I liked the film better than the book. It was certainly more fun, more whimsical, and more comedic – all good things, as far as I’m concerned. They had to tweak some elements of the story for the translation to the big screen (the protagonist was struck down with a kind of trauma-induced amnesia, to allow for the “big reveal” of her dark secret about two thirds of the way through), but it was all done really smoothly. Plus, Winslet is absolutely fantastic, not to mention all the other Aussie acting royalty starring alongside her. Watch it here!

Still Alice

The story of Still Alice is every struggling writer’s dream: aspiring author Lisa Genova was struggling to get any interest in her heart-wrenching tale of a young woman’s descent into dementia, so she self-published in 2007. Still Alice sold so well that it got the attention of the major publishing houses, and eventually Hollywood – the film adaptation, starring the incomparable Julianne Moore, was released in 2014. I will make no secret of the fact that I am a Julianne Moore fangirl. In my eyes, that woman can do no wrong, and Still Alice was no exception. I was gripped, the whole way through. I mean, the book was fine and everything, but it probably didn’t tug on my heart strings the way that Genova intended – it took Moore’s incredible performance to pull the thing right out of my damn chest. Watch it here!


The Hours

I meant it when I said I love Julianne Moore, and that’s probably why two of her films feature on this list. The Hours is not an “adaptation” of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway of course, but it’s about as close as you can get given that the original text is a crazy stream-of-consciousness modernist ramble. Technically, it’s actually an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, which was itself an adaptation of Woolf’s work… adapt-ception!

The Hours features not only my homegirl Moore, but also Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. That’s one heck of a formidable trio! Kidman is almost unrecognisable (that fake nose!) in her role as Virginia Woolf, writing Mrs Dalloway in 1920s England. Moore plays a pregnant 1950s housewife, living in California and reading Woolf’s book as she struggles with the confinement of her domestic life. Streep plays a modern New York woman, planning a party of her friend with late-stage AIDS in 2001. The stories of these three women weave together across the film, and it is absolutely stunning. I give them all 10/10. Watch it here!

Little Women

This is one of the very few film adaptations I had actually seen before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. Little Women was a childhood favourite of mine; I loved Winona Ryder’s Jo, who dreamed of becoming a writer and refused to be waylaid by silly boys and their silly offers of marriage. Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel has been adapted to film six times (and countless more times in television and other media); of course, I’ve not seen any of the others, but how could they possibly top this one? Pre-shoplifting-scandal Ryder is joined by Susan Sarandon, a very young Claire Danes, and an even-younger Kirsten Dunst. When you’re watching it, you’ll probably have to work pretty hard to shut off the nagging intersectional-feminist voice in your head that points out all the problems, but once you do it will make for a truly enjoyable and touching film. Watch it here!




Wild

To be honest, what I love most about the 2014 film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is the story behind its creation. Reese Witherspoon optioned the rights to Wild before the book was even released. She had recently founded Pacific Standard, her own production company, with the goal of finding roles for women that were, y’know, actually good. Roles that were layered and complex and stretched further than the tropes to which she had been relegated for so long. So that, in itself, makes this a film – Pacific Standard’s first – worth watching.

As far as the movie itself is concerned, I really appreciated their refusal to blindly adhere to conventions of the film genre. The book did not present a neatly packaged story, there weren’t clearly delineated character arcs, it was chaotic in the way that intensely personal memoirs often are. All too often, books like Wild are re-packaged (see: bastardised) to fit this linear model of plot development that audiences have been trained to expect. But Wild bucked that trend. The filmmakers stayed true to the story of Strayed’s life, and her telling of it, which makes for a fascinating film-watching experience. I’m not sure the movie was “as good” as the book per se, but it certainly didn’t suck. Watch it here!

To Kill A Mockingbird

Up ’til now, I could totally hear all the proper film aficionados rolling their eyes at me, so here’s one with which they can’t possible argue: the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Gregory Peck was breathtaking in his role as Atticus Finch – so much so that he and Lee became lifelong friends. He won an Oscar for Best Actor, and the film won two additional awards (for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Art Direction). It totally has the chops!

The only – only! – flaw in this otherwise-perfect film, as far as I’m concerned, is how the writers limited the role of Calpurnia (the Finch’s nanny, cook, cleaner, and all-round Good People). She had a very strong presence in the book, really influencing Scout’s development (moral and otherwise) as well as playing a pivotal role in the Finch’s relationship with the black community in their small Southern town. Unfortunately, in the film, she was downgraded to a mostly “yes sir, no sir” kind of role, possibly for reasons of scope and time but I was still disappointed. Nonetheless, I really hope that they never try to re-boot this particular adaptation; despite that one criticism, I am certain the original version cannot be topped. Watch it here!


The Fault in Our Stars / The Hunger Games

I’m throwing both of these films into the same category, because I like them for the same reason. The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games both feature teenaged female protagonists, with overwhelming odds to overcome and a complicated love life. The fact is, I’m not sure either of the adaptations constitute “great films” in and of themselves, but they share the same main benefit. In fact, all film adaptations with teenaged protagonists are better than the books (in my humble opinion), for the simple reason that I usually find the internal monologue of teenaged narrators – with all their self-deprecation and worrying and overwhelming emotional investments in questionable relationships – pretty damn annoying. The translation from book to big screen completely alleviates that!

Even where these films use a voice over, it’s used (relatively) sparingly. This allows the plot and the actual action to come to the fore. The story is allowed to speak for itself, without all of the yucky let’s-get-the-reader-to-emotionally-relate-to-this-troubled-teenager guff. So, for that reason, I count both The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games as movie adaptations that don’t suck. Plus, I’d much rather young women watch these than, say, Disney movies where the Prince always saves the Princess in the end. These ladies save themselves, which is a much better message! Watch The Fault in Our Stars here, and The Hunger Games here!

Easy A

This is probably the millionth adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It came very much towards the end of the let’s-adapt-classic-literature-for-the-teen-market trend. Now, Easy A could never measure up to something like 10 Things I Hate About You (a classic of the genre, don’t even try to fight me on this), but Emma Stone is hella loveable, and on the whole the filmmakers did a less-clumsy job than many others in making the storyline of a classic novel accessible to a teenaged target market. Given that I didn’t exactly love The Scarlet Letter, it’s not hard to see why I preferred this version. Watch it here!




Capote

So, I watched the original adaptation of In Cold Blood (the one released just after the book, in 1967) – I must say, it wasn’t great, and I scrubbed it off the list for this post pretty quick. But then my husband suggested we watch Capote, the 2005 biopic about Truman Capote’s life during the period he was writing In Cold Blood and, I gotta say: it. was. fantastic! Once again, it’s not strictly an adaptation per se, but it was just so good that I had to include it here!

Phillip Seymour Hoffman does a truly awe-inspiring job in his role as Capote, it goes without saying (the man was a legend), but the bit that really impressed me was the role of Harper Lee’s character. Not a lot of people realise this, but Lee did a lot of work for Capote in the eight years that he spent preparing his manuscript; she was pretty much his research assistant, typist, witness liaison, editor, and emotional support person, all rolled into one. Unfortunately, most histories of Captoe’s life and work gloss over her contributions. This film gave her a much bigger role than I was expecting – granted, probably not quite as big a one as she played in real life, but still so much more than any of the others. If you have any curiosity about the story behind In Cold Blood, including Capote’s controversial friendship with the murderer Perry Smith, this is the film for you! Watch it here!

It would seem that the main ingredient for making a movie adaptation that doesn’t suck is securing a fantastic star – Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Gregory Peck, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were all mind-blowing. Their masterful performances put these movies a cut above all of the other crappy adaptations that are spewed out every year. Have I missed one of your favourites? I’m keen to see more (I’m on a roll!), so let me know in the comments (or give it a plug over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

Got Beef? Five Famous Literary Feuds

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call authors of literary fiction “gangster” or “bad-ass”. Sure, some of them like a drink, and some of them have dabbled with hard drugs and guns, but for the most part they’re a retiring lot, content to sit at home alone with a cup of tea and a typewriter (and maybe a cat, for company). They wouldn’t dream of entering into public feuds, exchanging barbs in the media and in their work, calling out their contemporaries for getting back on their bullshit. Right? Wrong! If you look closely, you’ll find a long literary history of roasts, sassy comebacks, and petty revenge! Here’s a list of five famous literary feuds…

Five Famous Literary Feuds - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Aldous Huxley vs George Orwell

On the face of it, you’d think that Huxley and Orwell should have been the best of friends. Each penned a novel that has forever changed the way we think about dystopian literature, not to mention the way we think about our own dumpster-fire world. Huxley was even one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton! Comparisons of their work by critics is to be expected, of course, but it turns out that Huxley and Orwell had a sparring match of their own going on…

It all started in 1946. Orwell hadn’t yet written 1984, but he had published a review of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. In his review, he claimed that:

“Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partially derived from [We]. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence.”

OK, fine, by today’s standards it’s hardly a mic-drop, but this is basically the old-timey equivalent of calling out a rapper for using a ghost writer. Huxley, of course, emphatically denied the accusation of plagiarism, claiming not to have even heard of We until after he had completed Brave New World. Everyone let it go for a few years, until…

… in 1949, after the publication of 1984, Orwell received a letter from one Mr Aldous Huxley. Orwell was expecting yet another glowing review (after all, up until that point, he’d been receiving them from all over the world), and Huxley did begin the letter by praising the book as being “profoundly important”. Things then took a turn, though. Huxley’s position can be best summed up as: “Nice try, buddy, but my dystopian future is way more likely to actually happen than yours. Why you gotta be such a Debbie Downer?”

“… whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.”

As best we know, they never buried the hatchet.

Who won? Well, I think we’ve got to call this one a draw. Orwell gets a point for finding (potential) evidence of shady behaviour, but Huxley at least had the balls to tell him off directly. (And by the way, you can read my review of Brave New World here, if you want to see what all the fuss was about…)


Henry James vs H.G. Wells

This is the first of many tales of great literary friendships gone awry. Henry James and H.G. Wells had a once-amiable relationship, built on a foundation of mutual admiration. That all fell to shit when they disagreed on the primary purpose of literature. Wells accused James of treating “like painting [as] an end”, while to him “literature like architecture is a means”. Oooh, snap!

In 1915, Wells published the satirical novel Boon, lambasting James’ writing style. Not many friendships can survive a parody of the other’s work. James accused Wells of producing “affluents turbid and unrestrained” (a stream of wordy shit, basically), and in response Wells called him a “painful hippopotamus” (which is a lot more pithy). The two traded nasty, wounded letters for a while, then their correspondence stopped altogether.

Who won? I’m calling this one for Wells: firstly, because “painful hippopotamus” is a fantastic roast, and secondly, because he kind of had a point. Wells also gets a bonus point for once referring to George Bernard Shaw (in a separate feud) as “an idiot child screaming in a hospital”.

Mark Twain vs Jane Austen

This wasn’t exactly a fair fight, because Jane Austen died several years before Mark Twain was born. However, he dissed her so brutally and so often that it’s surely one of the greatest literary feuds of our time. For instance, Twain once expressed wonder at the fact that Austen had died of natural causes, when – according to him – she should have faced execution for her “literary crimes”. And he didn’t stop there!

“I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

As if that wasn’t enough, he also said (a few times):

“Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”

And also possibly his most pithy insult about one of her novels:

“Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.”

Who won? Given Austen’s reputation for biting social satire, I’m sure she could have come up with a few retaliatory zingers of her own, had she lived to see what Twain thought of her. As it stands, though, I’ve got to give this one to him. He was brutal!




Charles Dickens vs Hans Christian Andersen

In the 1850s, Andersen was what we might now call a Dickens fan-boy (and it’s not hard to see why). Andersen wrote: “Dickens is one of the most amiable men that I know, and possesses as much heart as intellect”. Big talk, given that (at the time) he’d never actually met the man.

The love was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but before the poor guy even arrived, Dickens was slagging him off to all his mates: “He speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”

Andersen’s stay at Casa de Dickens did not improve their relationship. He committed the cardinal sin of overstaying his welcome; Dickens had offered him the use of the guest room for a week, but he ultimately stayed for five. Upon his departure, Dickens was so pissed off that he taped up a note in the room that read:

“Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”

Andersen was never invited back, and eventually Dickens just ghosted him altogether.

Who won? This wasn’t even a contest: Dickens won by KO.

Salman Rushdie vs The World

Salman Rushdie is basically the Kanye West of literature. He never forgets his enemies’ faces, and he has a never-ending supply of sass. He counts among his foes Cat Stevens (whom he called “stupid”), Kalam Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute (a “garden gnome”), broadcaster Mark Lawson (from whom he once stole a cab, the ultimate insult), and literary journalist James Wood (whom he once accused of having altered a review of his novel to appease his U.S. “paymasters”). He’s had so many feuds, I couldn’t possibly pick just one to cover here.

Salman Rushdie vs John Updike

In 2006, Updike reviewed Rushdie’s book Shalimar The Clown and asked the question: “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie… call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?”

In response, Rushdie is quoted as saying: “A name is just a name. ‘Why oh why?’ Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’.”

He piled on when talking about Updike’s own upcoming novel (Terrorist), calling it “beyond awful”, and suggesting that Updike “should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do”. He also referred to the majority of Updike’s work as “garbage”.

When Rushdie was asked to defend his pettiness, he answered the way we all wish we could sometimes: “I’m allowed to say it, because he was really rude about me.”


Salman Rushdie vs John le Carré

This fourteen-year feud began in 1997, with John le Carré having a big old whinge in the letters section of The Guardian. He complained that he had been unfairly attacked for alleged anti-Semitism.

Rushdie did not take kindly to this, and called him out on it:

“It would be easier to sympathise with [le Carré] if he had not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer. In 1989… le Carré wrote an article… in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.”

But Johnny did not back down without a fight!

“Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”

Shots fucking fired! Rushdie came back:

“I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be.”

And he added, later:

If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning to read… It’s true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. ‘Ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn’t dream of removing them… John le Carré appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I’m going back to work.”

Thank God we got receipts for all of this!

The two publicly made-up in 2011, with Rushdie calling le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “one of the great novels of postwar Britain”, and le Carré conceding that he, too, regretted the dispute. Something tells me that Rushdie may bury hatchets but he keeps maps of where he put them…

Salman Rushdie vs Peter Carey

In Rushdie’s eyes, Peter Carey made a grave mistake when he pulled out of attending a gala hosted by the Pen American Centre in 2015. Carey stated publicly that he objected to Pen awarding a freedom of expression and courage award to the editor-in-chief and essayist of Charlie Hebdo (the satirical French magazine attacked by extremists after that year publishing cartoons disparaging the prophet Mohammed).

Rushdie saw the award as part of the “battle against fanatical Islam”, and said that Carey – along with the five other writers who withdrew their acceptances and refused to attend the event – had “made themselves fellow travellers of that project [fanatical Islam]”, a “very, very bad move”.

He also called them “pussies”.

Carey maintains to this day that Pen has a “seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population”.

Chances are it’ll be another fourteen years before they make nice…


Salman Rushdie vs Roald Dahl

How anyone could feud with the author of The BFG is beyond me, but Kanye Rushdie managed it. In fairness, Roald Dahl was kind of a prick about the whole thing…

It all started when Dahl publicly denounced Rushdie in 1989, arguing that he basically deserved the fatwa that was placed upon him after publication of The Satanic Verses. Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist”, and said that his “sensationalism” was a “cheap” way of making it to the top of a bestseller list.

“[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise.”

It was big talk from Dahl, who was – incidentally – also once placed under police protection after death threats were made against him.

And yet, it would seem that the feud was (unusually, for Rushdie!) a bit one sided. Rushdie never responded publicly, and popular opinion seems to be that Dahl was simply jealous of Rushdie’s success, trying to bring him down a peg or two. This is somewhat substantiated by an (admittedly completely unverified) account I once heard of a journalist telling Dahl that he was off to interview Salman Rushdie for a column, and Dahl (allegedly) responded: “Oh, yes? Well, tell him he’s a shit!”

I don’t know if Rushdie ever got that message – he was probably too busy feuding with everybody else.

Bonus Literary Feuds!

I must also give an honourable mention to William Faulkner, who is quoted as saying that Ernest Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Hemingway responded by saying: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”. Hemingway might have won that round, but Vladimir Nabokov got the last word on Hemingway:

“As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

And there concludes my argument that authors are the pettiest, sassiest people on the planet. Are you convinced? Have you heard of any other great literary feuds? Tell me all about them in the comments (or share the gossip over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

Ridiculous (Real!) Reasons That Your Favourite Books Have Been Banned

At the end of this month, we’ll be celebrating Banned Books Week (23-29 September), an annual event promoting free and open access to literature. According to the official website, over 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982 (a “challenge” being an attempt to ban or restrict materials, brought by an individual or group, on the basis of content). The idea of a whole week dedicated to unorthodox and unpopular literature originated in the U.S. through the American Library Association, but it has gathered steam and spread worldwide. Banned Books Week draws international attention to the very real dangers posed by censorship – be it at the hands of schools, states, or federal governments.

Personally, I love banned books. In fact, it would seem that the majority of the books on The List have been banned, challenged, or censored at some point in history, somewhere in the world. At least 20 of them appear in the American Library Association’s top 100 lists of banned books over the past two decades. What I find most disturbing is the number of books that have been challenged because they contain diverse content; of the top ten most frequently challenged books in 2015, for instance, nine of them (quick maths: that’s 90%) featured or were written by people of colour, LGBTI people, and/or people with disabilities. Why are we so quick to challenge inclusive content from groups that are already marginalised in so many other respects?

Well, my favourite way to confront things that I don’t like is to laugh at them (of course!). So, let’s all have a chuckle at some of the most ridiculous (real!) reasons that books have been banned, challenged, or censored.

Ridiculous Real Reasons That Books Have Been Banned - Keeping Up With The Penguins

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Banned in Concord, Massachusetts (1885)
Reason Given: It is “trash and suitable only for the slums”

It was an auspicious start to a long and illustrious lifetime of bans and challenges for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Right up to the present day, it has been challenged repeatedly on the groups of racial insensitivity, perpetuation of racism, use of racial stereotypes, and coarse language. The fact that it accurately reflects the treatment and lived experiences of people of colour in 19th century America seems to have no bearing.

The Call of the Wild – Jack London

Burned in Nazi Germany (1920s-1930s)
Reason Given: It is “too radical”

A nice story about a man going for a walk with his dog (ha!) is clearly of great concern, and not only to the Nazis. The Call Of The Wild was also banned in Italy and Yugoslavia at different points, and has been challenged more recently in the U.S. for “age-inappropriateness” and concern about the author’s “pro-Socialist” views.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Censored in Irvine, California (1992)
Reason Given: Obscene language (“hell”, “damn”)

The irony here is mind-boggling! Surely no one ruling on these challenges has actually read the Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian science-fiction novel about a future world where books are illegal. A (somewhat oblivious) Californian school mandated the use of an expurgated version of the text in their classrooms, with all the “bad” words blacked out. Bradbury’s work has also been challenged and banned in other districts, usually citing its profanity, anti-government advocacy, opposition to religious belief, and – best of all – “questionable themes” (could they be any more vague?).


The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Banned in Kern County, California (1939)
Reason Given: “Portrays Kern County, California in a negative light”

That’s right: Kern County is not only the setting of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but it was also the first place to ban it. The book was similarly banned in Ireland in the 1950s, and Turkish booksellers were charged for “spreading propaganda” when they sold the book in the 1970s. Grounds for other subsequent challenges include its profanity (“goddamn”), and sexual references.

Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman

Challenged in New York, New York (1882)
Reason Given: It’s “filthy”

A wonderful little organisation called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (sadly now disbanded) was not a huge fan of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. They pressured publisher James Osgood to cease distributing the work altogether, arguing that it violated “the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature”. When that failed (good on ya, Osgood!), the upstanding booksellers of New York took it upon themselves to advise their customers not to purchase the “filthy” book. I must say, if I received such a warning, I’d probably buy two copies.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Banned in Lindale, Texas (1996)
Reason Given: It “conflicted with community values”

Ah, that old chestnut! Which community values were contradicted exactly remains unclear, but Moby Dick definitely contradicted them, according to a school district in Lindale. Other books banned by the same school under that ruling include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and – the darling of Banned Books Week, mentioned above – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Check out my full review of the community-value-conflicting American classic here.




Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

Challenged (2015)
Reason Given: It is “poorly written”, and there are “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”

I shouldn’t play favourites, but as far as I’m concerned this is the best ridiculous reason for a book to be challenged, ever! I can understand perhaps thinking that the content of Fifty Shades of Grey is a little “adult” for a very young audience, but what a way to articulate that concern! The Malaysian government did a little better: they banned the entire trilogy that same year, for its “sadistic” material and its “threat to morality”.

*Note: the location of this particular challenge has not been made public. The wonderful team at the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom were kind enough to tell me why: librarians and other professionals who wish to seek support from their office, but fear reprimands or punishment at work for reporting instances of censorship, are welcome to submit their concerns confidentially. However, they also confirmed for me that this was, in fact, a legitimate challenge reported to their office in 2015.

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Challenged in North Carolina (1981)
Reason Given: It is “demoralising, in that it implies that a man is little more than an animal”

This reason for challenging Lord of the Flies is lifted directly from its very premise. Any kid writing a book report can tell you that Golding’s whole point was that man is not that different from the animals. Such logic isn’t stopping the censorship brigade, though! They’ve also challenged this book for its obscene language, violence, and – I swear, I’m not making this up – animal cruelty.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Banned in Hunan, China (1931)
Reason Given: It would be “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level”

Yep: anthropomorphised animals really freak out the Chinese government. They felt that Lewis Carroll’s charming children’s fantasy novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was an insult to humans, and would teach children “disastrous” things (i.e., that humans and animals are “on the same level”). Can you imagine?

The U.S. got on board the banning train in the ’60s, albeit for different reasons: they believed the mushroom and hookah imagery would lure kids into the drug culture. Then, in the ’90s, New Hampshire banned the book (again!) for promoting “sexual fantasies and masturbation”. ??? Even I don’t know how they got there… Seriously, read my full review here and see if you can figure it out.

All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

Challenged in Dallas, Texas (1974)
Reason Given: Depicting a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”

God knows, we can’t have young adults exposed to a depressing view of life in literature! Especially not when it reflects immoral situations! How else will they learn that the real world is all sunshine and rainbows, and everyone does the right thing always?! We can hardly blame the good people of Dallas, Texas for challenging All The King’s Men, really.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Removed from classrooms in Miller, Missouri (1980)
Reason Given: “It makes promiscuous sex look like fun”

Words fail me. See my review here.



Honourable mentions must also go to: The Holy Bible (challenged for its “religious viewpoint”), The Witches by Roald Dahl (for “encouraging disobedience”), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (for “content dealing with menstrual cycles and feminine hygiene”, heaven forbid) and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (inexplicably challenged for “obscene language” only, when half the book is written in a nonsense language invented by the author and depicts some of the most graphic sexual violence and state-perpetrated violence that I have ever read – check out my full review for more details).

So, now that we’ve all had a good laugh, let’s get back to Banned Books Week. The battle against censorship is never won. Take some time out this month to read books that people tell you you “shouldn’t”. Soak up some dangerous ideas. Support an author who has been challenged or banned (buy their book, go to their talk, request their work at your local library). None of us have to like everything, but we should do everything we can to make sure that no one impinges on our right to read anything.

Have you come across a ridiculous reason that a book has been banned? What will you be reading to celebrate Banned Books Week? Let me know in the comments (or give it a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors

When we start talking about how our favourite writers write, I think all of us conjure up one of two mental pictures. We either imagine the disciplined, dedicated writer (like Stephen King) with his set schedule and his carefully-arranged study, or we think of the heavy-drinking night owl (see: Hunter S Thompson), who obliterates their body and mind but vomits out genius works of art at random. Authors certainly exist right across that spectrum, but it’s always more fun to read about the latter 😉 Here are some of the craziest writing methods of famous authors, the bizarre habits and creative processes that have produced amazing works of literature.

Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jack Kerouac & His Scroll

Jack Kerouac spent years scribbling down notes for On The Road in his various journals before he actually sat down at a typewriter and got on with it. He went from one extreme to another, though. He decided that having to stop for anything would be an unwelcome distraction in his creative process, so he procured a single 120-foot scroll of paper, and thus began typing his manuscript. His work poured forth, and he wrote the entire draft in what was effectively a single burst, barely stopping for food and water. When he was done, he just rolled it back up, and marched on down to his editor’s office. Of course, his sensible editor told Kerouac that he was out of his mind, and he’d need to type it up on normal pages in order for them to edit it – in response, Kerouac threw a tanty and stormed out.

Kerouac was also highly superstitious (about his writing, but also life in general). He tried out various rituals to get the creative juices flowing: writing only by candlelight, writing by a full moon, praying before sitting down to write, standing on his head (yes, really). Clearly, something worked, because he is now considered the darling of the Beat generation literary movement. Read my full review of his magnum opus, On The Road, here.

Maya Angelou & Her Hotel Room

Maya Angelou took Virginia Woolf’s maxim (that a woman needs a room of one’s own) to the next level. She rented a hotel room in her hometown by the month, and used it as her “study”. At 6:30AM each morning, she would head over there and spend the morning writing. She specifically requested that management remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles; she believed her “Big Mind” would sort out problems in her work if she kept her “Little Mind” occupied with something else.

Of course, she never actually slept there. She would leave around 2:00PM, run her errands, and then review the pages she’d written that day at home after dinner. She is cited as saying she’d inevitably scrap most of them, but keep the process up until she had about fifty good pages that she was happy with. And that’s how her work was born.


Aaron Sorkin & His Broken Nose

Granted, Aaron Sorkin isn’t an “author” in the same sense as everyone else on this list – he’s actually a screenwriter, the mind behind A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and The West Wing. Still, his process is definitely bonkers enough to warrant inclusion here!

“Writing never comes easy,” he once said. “The difference between Page 2 and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death.”

In 2011, Sorkin arrived at an Emmy event with a broken nose. When pressed by the media, he confessed that the injury was incurred as part of his writing process. It turns out, Sorkin workshops his dialogue… with himself, reading his lines out loud into a mirror. While working on a script, he became so enraged with his character’s situation that he head-butted the glass! He was probably on to something good, but… sheesh.

Victor Hugo & His Bare Arse

I’m not being funny: Victor Hugo literally wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the nude. He was working to an incredibly tight deadline in 1831, and found himself becoming distracted by, y’know, leaving the house all the time. So, what’s a writer to do?

Well, the obvious: Hugo bought himself a big bottle of ink, and asked his valet to confiscate all of his clothes. You can’t go out and have a good time and miss your deadline if you’ve got nothing to wear! Hugo fought off the cold by wrapping himself in a huge grey shawl, and set about writing out the manuscript, all the while in his birthday suit.

It’s unconventional, but you’ve got to give it to Hugo: it’s genius!




Kazuo Ishiguro & His “Crash”

This is perhaps the grown-up’s version of Kerouac’s scroll. It was 1987 when Kazuo Ishiguro convinced his wife to let him try something a little weird. No, not that! He convinced her to take on all of his housework and emotional labour (like wives have done for centuries before, but I digress), he completely cleared his calendar, and planned an entirely new approach to his book. He did nothing but write from 9:00AM-10:30PM, six days a week. He allowed himself an hour each day for lunch, and two for dinner (what a slacker!). He didn’t answer the phone once in this time, or even look at a piece of mail. His plan was to reach a mental state in which his “fictional world was more real to him than the actual one”. Apparently it worked, because this process produced The Remains of the Day. The first draft took him four weeks, writing free-hand on his writing slope.

In fact, Ishiguro still writes all of his first drafts on that writing slope. When the time comes to type them up, he uses a computer that dates back to 1996 – it’s not connected to the Internet. Neither of these habits are particularly kooky. What really disturbed me was reading Ishiguro quoted in an interview as saying that, while he was working on The Buried Giant, he didn’t watch a single episode of Game of Thrones. Apparently, he wanted to remain focused on his own fictional world, and he was worried that taking an hour to watch an HBO series once a week would “tamper with the world that he set up”. It’s all well and good to sacrifice for your art, but surely there are limits to what a human being can endure! 😉

James Joyce & His Crayons

For anyone who has read James Joyce’s work, it won’t come as any surprise to see him included in this list. He wrote one of the most notoriously unreadable novels in the history of English literature (Finnegans Wake); it took him seventeen years to complete, and every sentence is so oblique that most people need a companion guide to read alongside it. (I’m not game enough to take it on just yet – Ulysses is on The List, but I’m so apprehensive that I’ll probably leave it until last.)

Why seventeen years? Well, firstly, Joyce considered hammering out two whole sentences to be a “good day’s work”, so he wasn’t the most prolific guy. Secondly, he was working at a pretty serious disadvantage: he was almost blind. He was horribly near-sighted, and ended up developing iritis (a painful eye condition, the result of rheumatic fever). He had twenty-five eye surgeries in an attempt to improve his condition, with no luck. So, he took to writing with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat.

It sounds nuts, but there was actually method to his madness! The colourful writing implements were big enough and bright enough to help him see what he was writing. He also believed that the white coat reflected more light onto the page in front of him. As for laying on his stomach in bed, well: there probably aren’t many more comfortable ways to get your eyes as close to the page as possible. Maybe he wasn’t that crazy after all!


Friedrich Schiller & His Rotting Apples

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Friedrich Schiller’s mate, Goethe, has dobbed him in as having probably the craziest writing method of all time. See, Goethe stopped by Schiller’s house one night, and – finding that his friend was out and about – decided to wait, and have a snoop around.

He noticed a strange smell emanating from the bottom drawer of a desk, in the study where Schiller would work. Goethe leaned down, opened it, and found… a pile of rotting apples.

No joke: Schiller had deliberately stored a bunch in a drawer, and waited patiently for them to go off. He told his wife that the odor was “inspiring”, and he “could not live or work without it”. That woman deserves an actual medal, because what the actual fuck?! According to Goethe, the smell was so overpowering that it was enough to make you lightheaded. I’m not one to judge, but… Schiller was off his head.


Writers are hardly known for being well-adjusted and sensible, but this lot really take the cake. Have you heard about any other crazy writing methods of famous authors? Are you inspired to develop one of your own? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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