Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 50)

10 Books About Road Trips

The last few years, I haven’t been travelling much (for… obvious reasons). Now that travel is feeling like a reality again, I realise my perception of it has changed. The idea of spending thousands of dollars to stick myself in a metal tube with hundreds of strangers for 10+ hours seems unappealing, especially when I’d have to leave Fyodor Dogstoyevsky at home. I’d much rather jump in a car, with my canine sidekick, and start our adventure straight away – plus, spend our precious tourist dollars closer to home, in communities that have been ravaged by climate emergencies. I went looking for literary inspiration, and turned up these ten books about road trips.

10 Books About Road Trips - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Sponsor my next road trip by making a purchase through an affiliate link on this page: I’ll earn a small commission!

On The Road by Jack Kerouac

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

Every list of books about road trips begins with On The Road – it’s truly iconic. This classic of the Beat generation is based on 20-something Kerouac’s travels across the United States in the years following WWII. In fact, it’s more than “based on”: it’s basically a true story with a bunch of fake names to protect the guilty. From New York to San Francisco and back again, Virginia to New Orleans, Denver to Chicago and Detroit, across Texas and down into Mexico, Kerouac (ahem, I mean “Sal”) and his friends criss-cross the country in a hodge-podge fashion, always seeking adventure and finding trouble. I’m not sure it’s one I’d like to emulate exactly, but it’s certainly romantic in theory. Read my full review of On The Road here.

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a pop psychology/philosophy book, masquerading as one of the classic books about road trips. A father and son undertake a summer trip on motorcycles, forcing them to confront the ‘confusion of existence’. They discover how to reconcile the silences between them and between their spiritual lives through (you guessed it) motorcycle maintenance, an unfortunate reality of motorcycle journeys turned beautiful metaphor. This book also holds the dubious honour of being (officially!) the most-often rejected best-seller, having been turned down an astonishing 121 times before it found a publisher and went on to sell over five million copies.

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into The Wild - Jon Krakauer - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of all the books about road trips, this is my favourite example of one gone wrong. I first became familiar with the story of Christopher McCandless when my husband encouraged (read: forced) me to sit and watch the film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book Into The Wild. Whichever medium you choose to learn the story, it’s the same. A privileged white boy takes it into his head that he needs to escape his suffocating life of comfort, and takes off across the country completely unprepared. In a display of hubris the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Greek tragedies, McCandless takes a break from hitchhiking and civilisation to hike off into the wildnerness, never to be seen alive again. This is a frustrating read about a feckless young man, and an excellent example of what not to do.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the more bizarre books about road trips is Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel’s vision of a post-pandemic world with a travelling troupe performing Shakespeare for the remainders of humanity. This one kind of picks up where Fahrenheit 451 leaves off, a small band of true believers dedicating what’s left of their lives to keeping the arts alive in the wake of disaster. The story jumps back and forth, between the pre- and post-pandemic years, so it can be a little confusing – not to mention triggering for those of us still living it. But it’s a rich and fascinating book, one that shows the desire to hit the road never really dies.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road - Cormac McCarthy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopian books about road trips, you can’t go past The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s most widely-read novel. The father-son motif features in this one, as well. A father and son (maybe? kind of? it’s never really clear) follow the road through the landscape of a ravaged America, hoping to reach the coast (again, for reasons not really known). They face danger at every turn, as if the perilous climate weren’t risk enough, and all they have to sustain them is each other. This isn’t exactly an uplifting read, but it does interrogate the depths of our connections with one another. It was enough for Oprah to select it as an unlikely Book Club pick, anyhow!

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As I Lay Dying is one of the books about road trips for bummer reasons (as opposed to the devil-may-care let’s-adventure have-fun variety). Addie, the matriarch of a disadvantaged Southern family, ails and dies in the opening chapter, laying on her bed and listening to her family chop wood for her coffin outside her bedroom window. Her final wish is to be laid to rest in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. So, her family gathers their meager resources and hoist the coffin onto their shoulders, and make their way across the American South. It’s a fraught journey, with family drama playing out at every turn, and the hardships of the journey intensifying it all. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, strictly speaking, Wild isn’t so much one of the books about road trips as it is one of the books about hiking trails – but Strayed spends considerable time in cars, and a road’s a road’s a road, isn’t it? She set out on a grueling trek (1,100 miles!) along the Pacific Crest Trail almost entirely unprepared, with an overstuffed backpack and zero training. Along the way, she loses a shoe, grieves her mother, runs out of money, reads poetry, and learns a whole heck of a lot real fast. It’s basically Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor, one that will make you think about what you’re really looking for next time the road calls to you. Read my full review of Wild here.

Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns - John Green - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paper Towns requires you to suspend your disbelief a bit. The nerdy, underappreciated boy-next-door (Quentin “Q” Jacobsen) “loves” Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for years. She is (surprise, surprise) beautiful, mysterious, and edgy. Margo goes missing, and Quentin goes looking for her, following her trail of clues. I mean, I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught. Still, it’s what John Green went with, and it’s one of the most popular young adult books about road trips, so I’m hardly in a position to turn my nose up. Read my full review of Paper Towns here.

(John Green wrote another popular young adult book about a road trip, too: An Abundance Of Katherines.)

The Other Side Of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side Of Beautiful - Kim Lock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes, you pick up a book and its premise resonates in a way neither you nor the author anticipated. That’s what happened for me with The Other Side Of Beautiful. It opens with a really tight first chapter, one that will grab you and not let go: Mercy watches her house burn down, forcing her out into the world that her agoraphobia has kept her from for years. She finds herself in a camper van, with her ever-faithful sausage dog Wasabi (my absolute hands-down favourite character) by her side, driving the length of Australia, from Adelaide to Darwin. I feel so lucky to have found a book about my dream road trip – canine companion included! Read my full review of The Other Side Of Beautiful here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

This story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. The Grapes Of Wrath is another one of the iconic American books about road trips, this time featuring the impoverished Joad family and their pursuit of the American dream (you know, having enough money to feed themselves). They pile into a truck and drive from Oklahoma to California, where they’ve heard there’s jobs aplenty, only to discover that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

13 Non-Fiction Books About Medicine

One of the universal inevitabilities of life is that, at some point, we will all require medical attention. Whether it’s disease, injury, pregnancy, or even just a basic check-up, we are all thrown at the mercy of medicine sometimes. But how much do you actually know about the practice? Unless you studied medicine or a related field (or watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy), chances are your knowledge is limited to your personal experiences. That’s where books can fill the gap. Non-fiction books about medicine can reveal insights from many perspectives: patients, doctors, corporations, witnesses… Here’s a list of the best non-fiction books about medicine, as broad and encompassing as I can make it.

13 Non-Fiction Books About Medicine - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
My heart will race if you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page – no doctor needed, I’ll just earn a small commission!

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You probably don’t have much cause to wonder about how medical treatments are made, how they decide that the ibuprofen you pop for a headache or the shot that vaccinates you against nasties is safe. That will all change when you read The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, one of the essential books about medicine for any recipient of its treatments. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot! You’ll find yourself thinking of a poor, black tobacco farmer every time you visit the pharmacist for the rest of your life. Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

Confessions Of A GP by Benjamin Daniels

Confessions of a GP - Benjamin Daniels - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few non-fiction books about medicine pique our interest and sate our curiosity about the fringe elements of humanity than the GP memoir. General practitioners see it all: young, old, rich, poor, sick, very sick – wherever you fall on any spectrum, they’re the first stop for your healthcare. Benjamin Daniels is one such practitioner, and in his role as a family doctor, he sees endless banality punctured by occasional exciting eccentricities. Take the woman troubled by pornographic dreams about Tom Jones for instance, a nice break from the parade of patients demanding antibiotics for viral infections. Confessions Of A GP is a great primer on the real day-to-day of doctoring.

Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams

Anaesthesia - Kate Cole-Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“OK, take a deep breath, and count backwards from ten…” So goes every television scene where a character is put under anaesthesia, but what actually happens in a real medical setting? Anaesthesia is one of the non-fiction books about medicine that goes deep into one particular specialty, albeit one that touches many others. Kate Cole-Adams explores 150 years of putting people to sleep (or, in the traditional definition of the word, ‘rendering insensible’), and the surgical interventions that have been made possible as a result. What will really freak you out, though, is how little we actually know about this routine aspect of medical care. You’d think that being cut open would be the scary part of surgery, but maybe it’s the sleep that will get you!

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. Opioid overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in America and in Empire Of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe carefully examines how the actions of the Sackler family were the catalyst for this catastrophe. This is one of the chunkier non-fiction books about medicine, but it’s every bit as compelling as a well-written multi-generational epic. This book is essential to understanding one of the biggest crises facing the medical community in the 21st century. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota

Emotional Female - Yumiko Kadota - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We’ve largely romanticised the culture of overwork and burnout in young doctors (see: television dramas that conveniently condense the exhaustion of interns and residents into delightful montages). Emotional Female is Yumiko Kadota’s account of the real trauma inflicted by the industry in the name of ‘toughening up’ its newest recruits, a reckoning for the field of medicine and everyone who benefits from it. What’s more, she exposes the sexism that still runs rampant in hospitals and surgeries. Kadota felt the weight of responsibility of saving lives, and couldn’t reconcile it with the pressures of the seventy-hour weeks and being called ‘too emotional’ by the supervisors charged with her education.

Stiff by Mary Roach

Stiff - Mary Roach - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Medicine is all about keeping bodies breathing, keeping them alive – but what happens to bodies once the best efforts have been exhausted? In Stiff, Mary Roach explores “the curious life of human cadavers”, what happens to our shells when we shuffle off the mortal coil. One of the great ironies is that many of the medical advances that keep us alive are only possible thanks to the remains of those they would have benefited had they been developed earlier. If you’ve ever considered donating your body to science, this is one of the non-fiction books about medicine you should read to help you decide whether it’s something you want to do.

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Braiding together memoir and science, Gabrielle Jackson explores the ways in which social structures—specifically, the medical system—have under-served and oppressed women, keeping them sick and in pain, in Pain And Prejudice. From Plato’s wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. Using her own experience as a starting point (diagnosed with endometriosis in 2001, then adenomyosis in 2015), Jackson offers a testament to suffering that has been silenced for centuries. This is one of the essential non-fiction books about medicine for understanding the field through a feminist lens. Read my full review of Pain And Prejudice here.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Usually, non-fiction books about medicine come from one of two perspectives: that of the doctor, or that of the patient. In When Breath Becomes Air, the two merge, as Paul Kalanithi enters the final stages of his training as a neurosurgeon right as he’s diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. But Kalanithi doesn’t just offer us ‘grass is greener’ platitudes about the saviour needing saving. He generously shares a philosophical reckoning with the meaning of life and the purpose we assign to our time on earth. He sadly died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on.

Triple Helix by Lauren Burns

Triple Helix - Lauren Burns - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Medicine hasn’t just evolved to keep us alive; it’s evolved to help us create life, too. You surely know or have heard about ‘miracle babies’, donor-conceived and born through assisted fertility treatment. It seems to be the happy ending to a sad story, but for these babies the story is just beginning. What becomes of them when they grow up? Lauren Burns is one such ‘miracle baby’ – a donor-conceived person – and Triple Helix is the story of her search for her biological father. It’s a deeply personal account of the lived experience of a medical miracle, and the consequences of medical advances that perhaps weren’t thoroughly thought through. Read my full review of Triple Helix here.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

This Is Going To Hurt - Adam Kay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This Is Going To Hurt is one of the most popular non-fiction books about medicine in recent memory. It’s sold million of copies around the world, and it’s been adapted for the screen – not to mention the forthcoming follow-up. Adam Kay kept haphazard but detailed diaries of his time as a first-year doctor, and he has compiled them for our entertainment and edification. He describes 90+ hour weeks, “tsunamis of bodily fluids”, and all the other less-than-glamourous aspects of life as a junior medical man. This memoir is “hilarious, horrifying, and heartbreaking by turns”, and a must-read for anyone considering a career in medicine.

The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

The Woman They Could Not Silence - Kate Moore - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For all it has given us, medicine has an ugly history of stripping the freedom and dignity from some of the most vulnerable members of society. In The Woman They Could Not Silence, Kate Moore offers an account of one such transgression, that of a 19th century woman cast to the side by her husband. It was an era where women could all-too-easily succumb to the label of ‘crazy’, and find themselves institutionalised on the flimsiest of grounds. Of course, women and other marginalised groups still experience this kind of discrimination, but examining our history informs our understanding of how to dismantle these systems of oppression. Not all non-fiction books about medicine are a laugh riot, this one proves it, but the confronting ones are critical reading.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood - John Carreyrou - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bad Blood combines the best of books about medicine and books about true crime. Elizabeth Holmes has made many headlines, first for the miraculous advances of her company, Theranos, in the business of detecting and diagnosing disease via blood tests, and second, for being unveiled as a complete fraud. John Carreyrou was the journalist who first exposed the extent of her deception, and this book is a complete account – from start to finish – of how this house of cards came tumbling down. We’d like to think of medicine as a healing art, but ultimately (thank you capitalism) it’s a trillion-dollar industry, and inevitably there will be operators who take advantage. Read my full review of Bad Blood here.

Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd

Unnatural Causes - Richard Shepherd - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Medicine doesn’t end with our last breath. Some of our most essential medical personnel are those who work with our bodies after we’re dead. Richard Shepherd is one of them, a forensic pathologist tasked with uncovering reasons for a death that aren’t immediately clear. His job gives closure to families grieving an unexpected loss, evidence to courts seeking the truth of a crime, and the final messages of the dead to the world. Beginning with his first autopsy in medical school, and tracing his career across thousands of cadavers and corpses, Unnatural Causes is a stunning account of a side of medicine we’re not always comfortable thinking about, but as essential as heart surgery or writing prescriptions.

20 Brilliant Essay Collections

Essay collections exist in a kind of literary no-man’s-land. They’re non-fiction, but they don’t often slip neatly into a particular category (like “science” or “history”). Often, they draw from the author’s own life, but they don’t follow the chronology we expect of a memoir or autobiography. But if you can figure out where they’re shelved in your local independent bookshop, essay collections can make for some of the best reads. Check out these twenty brilliant essay collections, from all kinds of authors about all kinds of subjects.

20 Brilliant Essay Collections - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Affiliate links are brilliant! If you use one to make a purchase, you’ll be supporting me and this site with a small commission.

Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things To Me - Rebecca Solnit - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Men Explain Things To Me is a slim little essay collection with a provocative title and a brilliant premise. Rebecca Solnit writes about the lived experience of women in the patriarchy in seven essays (or nine, if you get a later edition) from the last twenty years. She addresses violence against women, marriage equality, the influence of Virginia Woolf, the erasure of women from the archive, fraught online spaces, and more. Solnit was even credited with coining the term “mansplaining” – even though the word itself doesn’t appear in the title essay, and she later said she didn’t necessarily agree with such a gendered term.

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Zadie Smith - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zadie Smith is a once-in-a-generation literary darling, writing beloved fiction and brilliant non-fiction with the same zeal. In Feel Free, her 2018 essay collection, she addresses questions we all find ourselves pondering from time to time. Why do we love libraries? How will we explain our inaction on climate change to future generations? What are online social networks doing to us? Her answers are categorised in the book’s five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free (from which the essay collection gets its name). Smith interrogates major world-changing events and small personal disruptions with equal fascination, which makes for an illuminating read.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist - Roxane Gay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Roxane Gay has built a career on being forthright, unabashed, and holding a microphone to the best and worst of the little voices in our heads. Bad Feminist is a collection of her essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly. As the title suggests, in one of the collection’s most memorable moments, she addresses the difficulty of reconciling her feminism with her love of hip-hop music and the colour pink. She contends throughout this essay collection that it’s better to be a ‘bad feminist’ than to be no kind of feminist at all. Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.

Shrill by Lindy West

Shrill - Lindy West - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever felt like you just take up too much space in a world that wants you to be small and quiet? Lindy West has, and that’s what she writes in Shrill, the first of her hilarious and insightful essay collections. She lays bear the shame and humiliation that comes with the journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance, in a world that insists you be smaller and quieter. West has battled internet trolls, waged war against rape jokes, and reached an uneasy accord with her unruly body and mind. These essays are brilliant, relatable and hilarious for all women who have felt like they didn’t quite fit.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel - Alexander Chee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel seems like an odd title for an essay collection, but it makes sense once you hear Alexander Chee’s explanation behind it. On book tours and at speaking events regarding his novels, he found himself facing the same question over and over: “how much of this fictional story is autobiographical?”. He started thinking about how we forge identities in literature, giving rise to this brilliant collection of essays. It’s his “manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him”.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Wow No Thank You - Samantha Irby - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Samantha Irby describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. Wow, No Thank You a collection of her essays about… stuff. Life. Ridiculous jobs. Trying to make friends as an adult. The lost art of making a mix-tape. Living in a place where most people don’t share your politics. Getting your period and bleeding all over the sheets of your Airbnb. Trying to remember why you ever found nightclubs fun. There’s even a whole essay of “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever…” jokes (the format might mystify you if you’re not on Twitter, but it’s hilarious). Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.

Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

Dead Girls - Alice Bolin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Are you sick of the trope where a nice, skinny, white girl shows up dead and that’s all we ever get to know about her? You’re not the only one. Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls interrogates “iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories”. This is one of those essay collections that will stick with you, and change the way you consume stories forever.

If you want alternatives to read, check out my list of crime thrillers without dead girls here.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Trick Mirror - Jia Tolentino - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jia Tolentino has been called “a peerless voice of our generation” and a “Joan Didion of our time”. Trick Mirror is one of the most critically acclaimed essay collections of recent years, a “dazzling collection of nine entirely original essays… [that] delves into the forces that warp our vision”. Have you ever wondered why we think what we do and the way we do? Normally, that’s the kind of question we’d leave to marketing professionals and moral philosophy professors, but Tolentino addresses it in an accessible and relatable way. She wants us to understand what advertising, social media, consumerism, and the whole she-bang has done to our consciousness and our understanding of ourselves.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

The David Foster Wallace Reader - David Foster Wallace - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll confess: David Foster Wallace is kind of my literary secret shame. The man was hardly a paragon of virtue, he treated the women in his life horribly, and he clearly had a lot of troubles that were never adequately addressed. But damn, if his essays aren’t some of the funniest I’ve ever read! Seriously, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one of those brilliant essay collections that will have you howling with laughter so loud your neighbours might call the cops. Wallace is, at turns, cynical, curious, credulous, and cutting – and yet his essays feel seamless. They’re long, they’re stuffed with footnotes that would make a lit professor weep, and yet you’ll read them feeling like no time is passing at all because you’re having so much fun. I can’t speak for his fiction, but his essay collections? Must-reads, especially this one!

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Any library of brilliant essay collections is woefully incomplete without David Sedaris, especially his 2000 collection Me Talk Pretty One Day. It’s over twenty years old, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless. It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday. It’s also a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I find it hard not to build up a head of steam when I talk about Nora Ephron, because she is criminally underrated. Because she wrote about women and their relationships (to each other and themselves), instead of men with businesses or guns, she’s relegated to the “chick lit” and “rom-com” shelves, described as “fluffy” instead of ingenious. Want proof? Pick up I Feel Bad About My Neck, one of the most brilliant and incisive essay collections you’ll read anywhere. With her trademark candour and dry humour, she tackles the unspeakable: aging as a woman in a society that values perpetual youth.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud - Anne Helen Petersen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Scan the headlines of any celebrity gossip website, and you’ll notice: times have changed. We’re a long way from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. The women of today’s front pages are boundary pushers, provocative and powerful in ways that women of previous generations wouldn’t dare dream about. Anne Helen Petersen has had a lot of cause to study these women in her role as a Buzzfeed editor, and she’s written Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud to explain what she’s seen. She “uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of powerhouses like Serena Williams, Hillary Clinton, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures”.

All About Love by bell hooks

All About Love - bell hooks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet we would all love better if we used it as a verb,” writes bell hooks in All About Love, one of her most widely-read and lauded essay collections. She posits that our society is descending into lovelessness. Not romantic lovelessness – we’re drowning in smooches – but the kind where we lack basic compassion and empathy for each other, and ourselves. We are divided and discontented, due to “society’s failure to provide a model for learning to love”. You’ll want to set aside a lot of time to read and think about this one, to really absorb its message – if you do, it’ll change your life.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is Eddo-Lodge’s first essay collection. It started with her blog post of the same name that she published back in 2014, but there’s no need to go trawling the internet for it: Eddo-Lodge reproduces it in full in the preface. It serves as a thesis statement, framing and contextualising everything that is to follow. So, the $64,000 question: why isn’t Eddo-Lodge talking to white people about race? Well, basically, she’s fed up: with white denial, with white self-flagellation, with trying to shake hands with a brick wall. Ironically, this is a collection of essays about race and racism that every white person should absolutely read. Read my full review of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.

Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

Rogues - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you loved Say Nothing and Empire Of Pain (like I did), you’ll be overjoyed (as I was) to get your hands on a copy of Rogues, a collection of Patrick Radden Keefe’s most celebrated essays from The New Yorker. These delightfully detailed investigative pieces focus on his favourite subjects: “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial”. They’re like delectable bite-sized true crime tales, all meticulously researched and fact-checked so as to ensure they’re completely believable. Each and every one is masterfully crafted, perfectly balanced, and totally gripping. Read my full review of Rogues here.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

How To Be A Woman - Caitlin Moran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The best essay collections combine both sweeping views of the way we live our lives and the minutiae of how the author lives their own. How To Be A Woman is the perfect example. Caitlin Moran interrogates what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, with broad observations as well as deeply personal (not to mention riotously funny) anecdotes. From abortions to Brazilian waxes to pop culture to reproduction, Moran explores the opportunities and constraints for women in all areas of life. She “lays bare the reasons why female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself”.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

Everything I Know About Love - Dolly Alderton - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you think about it, essay collections are a medium well suited to the millennial generation, with our attention spans ruined by television and our ingrained narcissism and all. Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love is to our generation what Bridget Jones’s Diary was to the Gen Xers. In it, she writes about contemporary young adulthood and all its essential components: “falling in love, finding a job, getting drunk, getting dumped, realizing that Ivan from the corner shop might just be the only reliable man in her life, and that absolutely no one can ever compare to her best girlfriends”.

Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring - Maria Popova - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve ever Googled any kind of lofty question – what did Toni Morrison say makes life worth living? is stoicism a solution to anxiety? what the heck is a ‘growth mindset’? – chances are you’ve stumbled upon BrainPickings.org (now renamed The Marginalian). The mind behind the brilliant website is Maria Popova, and while her online archives constitute about a hundred essay collections’ worth of material, she’s condensed her best and made her contribution in the form of Figuring. This one is a must-read for the literary nerds and the philosophy students and the history buffs. It features snippets and essential lessons from the lives of figures like Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman.

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

Axiomatic - Maria Tumarkin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It took Maria Tumarkin nine years to research and write Axiomatic, one of the most powerful essay collections you’ll encounter at your local independent bookstore. She seeks to understand grief, loss, and trauma, and how they inform who we are as people. So, as you can probably already tell, it’s not exactly a light read – but if you’re in the mood to do some deep thinking, it’s an excellent selection. Each of its five sections is based on an axiom about the past and present (like “history repeats itself” or “time heals all wounds”), and examines true stories from Tumarkin’s own life and those around her to illustrate her wider points.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The problem with essay collections about successful people is that too many of them are of the “here’s how you can be successful too, invest in this stock and get rich quick!” variety. Outliers is the exception (and you have no idea how hard it was not to call it an ‘outlier’ just now). Malcolm Gladwell takes an intellectual look at the best and the brightest, the shining stars of innovation and industry, with the aim of finding out what exactly makes them different. This isn’t just about waking up early or taking cold showers; there are very specific concoctions of culture, community, and cunning that get people to the very top of the game, and Gladwell lays them out for us.

Where To Get Book Recommendations

One question I’m frequently asked is where I find all these books on my shelves. With between 500,000 and one million books traditionally published each year (four million, if you factor in self-published titles), the choices can feel overwhelming. When you find a source of book recommendations that sends a constant stream of five-star reads your way, that shit is more precious than gold. If you’re looking for resources to narrow down your search for your next great read, here are my suggestions on where to get book recommendations.

Where To Get Book Recommendations - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Podcasts

I’m a podcast junkie. It’s one of the few trends I jumped on right at the beginning. Back in the days when you had to search the iTunes store on your computer, download a few episodes of a podcast, manually transfer them across to your iPod (with a cord!), and listen to them with headphones connected by wires? Yep, I was there, and I was lovin’ it.

Podcasts are a goldmine for book recommendations, even if you don’t quite know what your tastes are or they’re very broad. If you find a few podcasters you vibe with, who post episodes regularly, you’ll have book recommendations on tap. Of course, taste in podcasts varies as widely as taste in books, so the best way to find ones that work for you are to sample as many as you can.

Personally, I get amazing book recommendations from Chat 10 Looks 3, What Should I Read Next, and (mostly) The To Read List Podcast. Seriously, The To Read List Podcast is the best (or worst, depending how you look at it) thing to happen to my own to-read list in a long, long time.

Check out my recommendations for more great book podcasts here.

Email Newsletters

I know, I know – no one likes a cluttered inbox! But if you’re judicious with your use of the “subscribe” button, it’s a great way to get book recommendations.

Firstly, you want to choose outlets that won’t email you too frequently, or will let you decide how frequently their emails come through.

Secondly, you want to look for outlets that are recommending books that will work for you.

The good news is, if you stuff up either of these steps, it’s easily remedied: just press “unsubscribe” and try something else.

If you notice there’s a particular imprint who publishes a lot of your favourite books (look over the spines on your bookshelf for regularly-occurring logos), head to their website and I can all but guarantee they’ll have an email newsletter you can subscribe to. If there’s a news site you regularly visit, see if they have a Books or Arts section newsletter.

Some of my best book recommendations come from Penguin, Buzzfeed Books, Book Riot, and Publishers Weekly.

And, not to shamelessly self-promote, but the Keeping Up With The Penguins email newsletter is pretty great!

Book Reviewers

Speaking of shameless self-promotion: book reviewers are one of your best sources of book recommendations.

Why? Well, we read and review books for that exact purpose.

And there’s no shortage of them! No matter your tastes, no matter your interests, someone out there is reading and recommending books you’ll love on the internet.

Now, being as I am a book reviewer myself, I get my book recommendations from dozens and dozens of wonderful readers in this space. It feels rude and mean to recommend just a few! So, I’m going to satisfy myself with giving just The Uncorked Librarian as an example – because Christine has been so wonderfully kind as to feature a lot of my own recommendations in her book lists!

#Bookstagram

Just about every social media platform has a corner carved out for readers, so you could find a group on Facebook or a list on Twitter to give you book recommendations easily enough… but #Bookstagram is uniquely addictive. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful pictures of wonderful books, all produced by some of the most dedicated readers you’ll ever encounter.

Of course, there are 81 million (and counting!) posts tagged #Bookstagram, but it’s not hard to narrow down. Try searching tags specific to your taste – #RomanceBookstagram and #HorrorBookstagram are more manageable, for instance – and make sure you Follow anyone who posts about books you think you could love.

Check out my recommendations for #bookstagrammers you should be following here.

Bookish Besties

Of course, all of these online options are wonderful, but when it comes to book recommendations, nothing can really replace the one-on-one. Your bookish besties know you, know your tastes, and (if you’re lucky) are happy to forward book recommendations to you as they encounter them.

One of my bookish besties is Cathal, local bookstore achillean and true saint among men. He frequently sends me photos of books that have come into his store, asking if I might be interested in them because they sound like something I might like, or screenshots of blurbs and titles that belong on my wishlist. He’s even been known to simply drop books in my lap! If you can find a friend like that, readers, never let them go. (And I hope it goes without saying that I return the favour whenever I can!)

If your IRL friends aren’t particularly bookish or don’t share your tastes, don’t fret! You could connect with fellow readers on a platform like Goodreads or TheStorygraph. Don’t let anyone tell you that online friends “don’t count”, especially when it comes to book recommendations!

(By the way, remember how I mentioned email newsletters a minute ago? Goodreads has a pretty good one!)

Bookstore/Library Browsing

Don’t underestimate the merits of the browse. At your local bookstore or library, you might just stumble over your next favourite read – no recommendation necessary!

Of course, if you don’t want to leave it up to chance, check for a Staff Recommendations shelf (or ask a bookseller or librarian yourself – they love the opportunity to recommend books to patrons, you’ll make their day guaranteed!).

Another under-used resource: the local authors section. Not every bookstore or library has one, but if yours does, it’s well worth checking out. If you find a great book, there’s the bonus of perhaps running into your new favourite author getting coffee or at the post office!

Keep an eye out for author events or book clubs run through your local bookstore/library, too (that’s where those email newsletters come in handy again!). I’ve found a lot of great book recommendations through events I attended out of simple curiosity or boredom.

And, finally, use your library’s app or your bookstore’s website if you’re in a pickle. Sometimes, it’s 2AM and you need a book recommendation but all the stores are closed. The internet is your friend! I get my audiobook recommendations almost exclusively through my library’s app, no in-person browsing or chit-chat required.

10 Classic True Crime Books

Every genre has a few defining books, pillars of the canon that changed the game or played it so perfectly that they achieved icon status. With all of the recent scrutiny of the true crime genre, and new directions in how we report and engage with true crime across all formats, I got to thinking about all the Big(TM) true crime books over the last 50 years or so. It seems like every Murderino has read these – and if they haven’t yet, they really should. Here are ten classic true crime books to tick off your to-read list.

10 Classic True Crime Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission at NO cost to you! How cool is that?

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Truman Capote definitely believed he was changing the game with In Cold Blood. It was an instant classic upon publication in 1965, and has remained popular ever since. Capote was the first to popularise a literary style of true crime, where he used the techniques of fiction to tell the story of the Clutter murders in Kansas. Ethically, it strays to the dark end of the gray area, with Capote getting inappropriately close to the murderers (which undoubtedly coloured his coverage), exploiting witnesses, and barely acknowledging his friend Harper Lee’s extensive work in research and manuscript development – but it’s a cracking good read, all the same. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me - Ann Rule - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Stranger Beside Me is one of the most captivating classic true crime books, largely due to Ann Rule’s relationship with the subject, notorious serial murderer Ted Bundy. Rule knew Bundy when they worked together at a suicide hotline (of all things), and when she followed the cases of local girls murdered brutally in their homes, she had little idea that it was her good friend Ted who wielded the weapon. The resulting book is unique in that it is both biographical and autobiographical; Rule is able to testify as to what Bundy was like in ‘real life’, and give us access to the psychological effects of learning that your friend is a killer. That Rule is a talented writer and can Bring It on the page makes it all the better. Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

It’s hard to find words to describe the tragedy of the Columbine High School massacre. I’m amazed that Dave Cullen was able to delve so deeply into the unspeakable in his definitive true crime book about the shooting, called simply Columbine. In alternating chapters, he describes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s evolution from disgruntled teens to active shooters, and the impact of the school shooting on the community over the following decade. Cullen won dozens of awards for his work, especially in dismantling the mythology and misconceptions that had grown around the massacre in the years since. Be warned, though: even though this one is a classic of the true crime genre, and a worthy read, it is very graphic and explicit in its depictions.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

Helter Skelter - Vincent Bugliosi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If copies sold was the only gauge by which we judged classic true crime books, Helter Skelter would top the list. It is the best-selling true crime book of all time. Vincent Bugliosi had unique access to the case of the Manson Murders, being the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson. He gives a first-hand account of the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Charles Manson and other members of the Manson Family. Unfortunately, Bugliosi devotes comparatively little time to the lives of the victims or the wider impact of the Manson Family’s crimes, meaning the book falls short of many of the ethical standards we set for true crime today. Still, it is one of the classics of the genre, and an essential read all the same.

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil - John Berendt - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the footsteps of In Cold Blood followed Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, a classic true crime book about the murder of Danny Hansford by his boss in Savannah, Georgia. Thirty-odd years after Capote topped the best-seller lists, John Berendt revisited the idea of a true crime novel set in the Deep South, with comparable success. Berendt employs the tropes of the Southern Gothic, and casts his net wide for details about the Savannah setting and its eccentric cast of “characters”. It makes for an immersive, if at times overwhelming, read. It’s evocative and detailed, though beware: Berendt took some liberties with the timeline to make the real-life events fit his ‘plot’ structure, so it’s best not to take the story as gospel.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

Fatal Vision - Joe McGinniss - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fatal Vision became one of the classic true crime books for strange reasons (more on those in a minute below). On its face, it’s a book about Captain Jeffrey R. MacDonald, who was convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and child. MacDonald maintained his innocence throughout the investigation and trial, claiming that his home had been invaded and his family attacked by ‘hippies’ high on acid. He hired Joe McGinniss to write his story, giving him unparalleled access to privileged conversations and court proceedings, in the believe that McGinniss would write a book proclaiming his innocence. However, McGinniss was quite convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, and published this book saying as much. MacDonald went on to sue McGinniss, and the author was widely criticised for behaving unethically.

The Journalist And The Murderer by Janet Malcolm

Remember how I said Fatal Vision became a classic under unusual circumstances? Well, here they are. Janet Malcolm was so intrigued-slash-infuriated by how McGinniss deceived and betrayed his subject in writing that book that she wrote a whole other book about how fucked up it was – The Journalist And The Murderer. She re-interviewed all of the major players in the case (including lawyers, members of the jury, and witnesses) to reconstruct not only the crime, but the ways in which it was misrepresented in McGinniss’s book. Her book became not only one of the classic true crime books, but also one of the classic books on journalism; it’s still used in academic classrooms to teach journalistic ethics today.

Zodiac by Robert Graysmith

No true crime case haunts the minds and search histories of Murderinos more than that of the Zodiac Killer, a series of unsolved murders in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Robert Graysmith dissects what we know, and what we think we could know, about the case in Zodiac, his 1986 true crime book. He covers the various investigations across all levels of law enforcement – the LAPD, the FBI, the CIA – that failed to unmask the killer, despite thousands of man hours and tips and evidence logged. He incorporates his own theories, even pointing to two (pseudonymous) suspects that he believes may be responsible. We may never know the truth of the culprit, but at least we got one of the most captivating classic true crime books out of it.

The Innocent Man by John Grisham

John Grisham is unbelievably prolific, and yet his back-catalogue contains only one true crime book: The Innocent Man. And boy, it’s a corker! Unlike many other classic true crime books, Grisham finds the golden goose, a wrongful conviction that he can expose (thus, the title). Ron Keith Williamson was a minor league baseball player wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter. He was sentenced to death, and spent eleven years on Death Row until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999. Grisham used this, and other cases of wrongful conviction, to expose the capacity of police departments and courts to prosecute on flimsy evidence, and the psychological ramifications for the accused. Williamson’s story is a tragic one, and all the more important to examine, given the recent trend towards trial by media.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1979 true crime book, The Executioner’s Song. Mailer used the story of the execution of Gary Gilmore to examine the wider ramifications of the death penalty, reinstated in the United States in 1976. Gilmore actually advocated for the death penalty, insisting that his sentence be carried out “as soon as possible”, with all rehabilitative efforts and judicial recourse exhausted. Mailer’s progressive approach to his subject – extensive and meticulous, interrogating the impact of Gilmore’s crimes and execution on all sides, including that of his victims – was widely lauded and ahead of its time. This is one of the classic true crime books from a most unlikely source.

« Older posts