Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 28)

15 Powerful Memoirs By Women

There’s something particularly powerful about memoirs, the way they engage us and put us in another person’s shoes. I recently tried to put together a list of truly great memoirs, and quickly ran into a problem: there’s funny memoirs, niche memoirs, memoirs that make you think, memoirs about travel, celebrity memoirs… I had to narrow it down somehow! I’ll bring a bunch of these recommended memoir reading lists to you over the next few months, but for today, I thought we’d start with 15 powerful memoirs by women.

15 Powerful Memoirs By Women - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Joan Didion

Joan Didion is kind of the Madonna of writing. Just when you think her moment has “passed”, she re-invents herself and finds a new way to push boundaries for a new generation. The Year Of Magical Thinking is the book for which she is best known in my own generation, an account of the year she grieved after her husband’s very-sudden and very-unexpected death. The way that Didion manages to remain balanced, contemplative, and measured in her writing, all the while showing the reader the true depths of her horror and despair in the depths of tragic loss… truly a masterclass in how memoirs should be written.

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Stay Sexy and Don't Get Murdered - Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered is the dual memoir of the hosts of the My Favorite Murder podcast, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. Their radical honesty and complete transparency about their past bad decisions is completely disarming and so refreshing; it makes this memoir double as a here’s-how-not-to-make-the-same-mistakes-we-have guide to life. Here are two fierce women who have faced their fuck-ups and come out all the stronger on the other side, and they generously share their hard-won wisdom with us. Read my full review of Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In The Dream House is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of Carmen Maria Machado’s formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. It honestly changed my understanding of what a memoir could be, the ways in which one can tell their story. I think this book is destined to become a pillar of the queer literary canon, and on just a single read it became one of my most highly Recommended Reads here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

I Choose Elena - Lucia Osborne-Crowley - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You don’t need to be familiar with Ferrante (or any other of the dozens of writers Osborne-Crowley references in I Choose Elena) to find yourself deeply immersed and irrevocably moved by this story. It’s not often that a book will bring me to tears, even less so an extended literary essay/memoir, but this one did (more than once): tears of anguish, tears of fury, tears of gratitude. It has taken me down a rabbit hole of learning more about how our bodies react to, process, and accommodate trauma. I am endlessly indebted to Osborne-Crowley for sharing her story so generously.


Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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

Before I opened the cover of Wild, I assumed (from what I’d heard about it around the traps) that Cheryl Strayed was a late-30s suburban mother with a mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in the ‘burbs who abandoned it all to “find herself” on the Pacific Crest Trail. Turns out, at the time of the book’s events, she was actually a mid-20s divorcee with a heroin habit and a transient lifestyle, still reeling in grief from the death of her mother. Strayed defies the cliche with her radical openness and vulnerability about her fuck-ups and mis-steps, as well as with the circumstances of her life. Read my full review of Wild here.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maya Angelou had the kind of childhood that would turn most of our stomachs. She was sent to live with her grandmother as a young child, and struggled to reckon with the sting of abandonment at the same time as navigating the horrifically racist waters of the deep South. Then, finally returned to her mother, she was attacked by a much older man. You’d forgive her for being bitter and twisted, but instead this incredible woman turned to love and kindness, and wrote a series of autobiographical books – this being the first, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – in which she demonstrates to us the true power and resilience of the human spirit.

Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

Your Own Kind Of Girl - Clare Bowditch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Up until a couple of years ago, I (and, I assume, most of the world) knew Clare Bowditch as a singer. Specifically, I knew her as the singer who transitioned into acting for a role in the Australian drama Offspring. Little did I know that inside her was a burgeoning writing talent, and a determination that one day she would be “brave enough – and well enough” to tell her story. That day came with the publication of Your Own Kind Of Girl, Bowditch’s memoir of the forces that shaped her life: anxiety, grief, shame, and compulsion. She shows us how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter, and what happens to us when we believe them.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

The Hate Race - Maxine Beneba Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, starts before she is even born: with her parents’ arrival in Australia. They’re confused by the liquor store manager directing them to the boxes of cask wine. They’re startled by the display of C**n cheese at the local supermarket. When Clarke is born, she’s raised in the middle of white-bread suburbia, complete with Vegemite toast breakfasts and Ford Falcon road trips. Her family is just like all the others that surround them… except for the inescapable fact of their black skin. This powerful memoir will show you the ways that race and racism infiltrate even the presumed safest spaces in our community.


Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Wishful Drinking - Carrie Fisher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Vale Carrie Fisher. I still can’t quite believe the world has lost her spark. Most actresses, once catapulted to international fame off the back of their hyper-sexualised role in one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, would probably spend most of their lives trying to distance themselves from their on-screen persona. Not Fisher. As you can see here, on the cover of one of her (multiple) memoirs, she appears with her trademark Princess Leia braids, slumped over holding a martini glass. Wishful Drinking is based on her one-woman stage show about life in the spotlight and addiction in the shadows, told with punchy humour and self-deprecating wit.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bri Lee is one of those scary-smart young women, the kind that you know would kick your arse in any kind of argument (and make you like it). She’s a former law student, a former judge’s associate, and she turned that soul-crushing mind-numbing experience into an incredible memoir, Eggshell Skull. She simultaneously reckons with the ways in which the Australian justice system works against survivors of sexual and gendered violence, and coming to terms with her own experience(s) of assault and harassment. Just when she might’ve been done impressing you, she also released a follow up – Beauty – about the immense pressure she felt and faced while promoting her memoir, to be Thin and Beautiful(TM).

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita In Tehran - Azar Nafisi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every book-lover can surely relate to remembering and understanding periods of their lives based on what they were reading at the time. For Azar Nafisi, those recollections are perhaps more incredible than most. In Reading Lolita In Tehran, she describes living, teaching, and resisting under the Islamic Republic of Iran government in the late ’80s and early ’90s, framing the story through the books she read with seven other women in a book club she formed. They met at her house to discuss forbidden works of Western literature, Lolita (obviously) among them, as well as Gatsby, and other iconic books and characters.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few writers have mastered the talent of writing books intelligible to both academics and the average reader, weaving the intensely personal with the deeply abstract and theoretical, putting philosophy into practice, like Maggie Nelson. In The Argonauts, she uses her own experiences of family, gender, queer identity, motherhood, and personal politics as a prism through which we can collectively examine queerness, gender theory, and sociology. I dare you to find a queer feminist who doesn’t have a copy on their shelves (or who hasn’t been given at least three as Christmas and birthday gifts).


I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am I Am I Am - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If the title of I Am, I Am, I Am sounds familiar, that’s probably because Maggie O’Farrell borrowed it from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”). It is a strange contrast, but also oddly fitting, that O’Farrell took an immortal line from a book about the desire to die as the title for her memoir about her own brushes with death, seventeen in total. These near-misses have punctuated and defined her life: the childhood illness, the encounter with a bad man, the birth of her own child… Nothing makes you more grateful for your next breath than O’Farrell reminding you how easily it could be your last.

Reckoning by Madga Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Magda Szubanski is one of Australia’s most beloved performers, an icon of our screens and of our hearts. She is funny, she is wise, and she never seems to quit: not in the face of endless trolling about her weight, not under the public pressure to stay in the closet, not even when this country was divided over whether or not we should allow same-sex couples to marry (Magda became the beacon of the Yes vote, and won, by the way). But, as the title of her memoir suggests, her strength is born of a serious Reckoning with her past, the trauma and secrets inherited and buried, and what it’s like to be faced with no other choice but to carry on.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever walked into a room and found yourself gripped by fear, knowing that you didn’t “belong”? That’s happened many a time in many a room for Tara Westover. Rather than letting it cripple her, she has turned her experiences into a perennially popular memoir and book club-favourite, Educated. From being raised by her survivalist Mormon family, largely cut-off from the rest of the world and “home-schooled” in their religion, to being the best and brightest at the world’s top universities, Westover has the kind of grit, determination, and passion for life and learning to which we should all aspire.

Have you read any particularly powerful memoirs by women lately? Add to this list in the comments below!

My Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House

One of the things that’s been bringing me joy during, y’know, all of this is The To-Read List podcast. Today, I’m drawing inspiration from one of their episodes (which, in turn, was inspired by a Tweet from LitHub). The idea is to come up with a list of authors you’d want to be in lock-down with, or in quarantine with. You might love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but could you really stand living with her 24 hours-a-day for weeks on end? Ernest Hemingway might be brilliant, but what would it be like to share a bathroom with him? I put my thinking cap on and came up with my very own list (technically two, one for living authors a la The To Read List and one for dead authors a la LitHub): my ultimate lock-down author share-house.

Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Important note: this isn’t about the authors whose work I love the most. I had to scratch a whole bunch of brilliant writers for various reasons: I’d be too nervous to talk in front of Helen Garner, I’d be too intimidated by Sally Rooney (and only a little bit sour that we’re the same age), I figured I’d be cheating if I chose Elena Ferrante so that I could be one of the select few who know her secret identity, and I’d be scared of distracting Carmen Maria Machado or Roxane Gay from writing their next book. This is about the authors I reckon I could live with for an extended period under share-house circumstances.


Living Author Lock-Down Share-House

First thing’s first: I’m going to want someone around who can make me laugh. Someone who can find the funny in the mundane, someone who can make fun without being cruel, someone who will regale me with entertaining anecdotes when the days get too long. I can’t think of anyone who fits the bill better than David Sedaris. Read my full review of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Next up: I’m going to need somebody who won’t judge me if cocktail hour comes early. No one likes to drink alone, and I’m no exception! I reckon Susan Orlean and I would make for brilliant drinking buddies (if her Twitter feed is anything to go by). Plus, we could discuss niche true crime to our heart’s content, even if the others got sick of us.

I’d also want someone around who can teach me some stuff, and I reckon Colson Whitehead fits the bill. The guy didn’t get the MacArthur Genius Grant for nothing! He’s written about everything from history to Harlem to politics to poker. If we were in lock-down together, I’d struggle not to constantly pepper him with questions…

It can’t all be bookish types, though. We’d need someone with some aesthetic sensibilities to brighten up the place – and maybe draw us, just for lols. That’s why I’d call Mira Jacob up to the plate. I never thought of myself as a graphic novel reader until I read Good Talk. I’d happily take all of her dish-washing and laundry duties if she captured our lock-down conversations in return.


Dead Author Lock-Down Share-House

Whenever something crappy happens in my life (and I reckon getting locked down in a share-house during a global pandemic would count), I hear Nora Ephron‘s voice in my head, saying: “Everything’s copy”. I reckon she’d be the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and she’d get us all working on collaborative creative projects to release once regular business resumed.

And, it’s a combo deal: I’d love to have Anita Loos (sans her shit-head husband) in my author lock-down share-house, because I’m sure she and Nora would get along. Sure, I’d probably end up the odd-one-out, watching them write brilliant screenplays while I sipped my wine in the corner, but it’d be worth it to get them in the same room and watch the magic happen. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Speaking of entertainment: I reckon Anaïs Nin would be captivating. She was adventurous, generous, and by all accounts, fun! I mean, anyone willing to write gloriously literary smut on commission has got to be worth talking to. And, if we didn’t get along, I’d feel less guilty about sneaking into her room and reading her diary… (I mean, I’d never do that. Ahem. Probably.)

And, finally, I’d want George Eliot in the share-house, and I’d want to ask all manner of questions, about writing and politics and life… but the one that’s front-and-center in my mind at the moment is: have we been mis-gendering George all this time? This has come up as a result of the “Reclaim Her Name” project, for which Baileys (the major sponsors of the Women’s Prize) is re-publishing a collection of works they’ve determined were written by women under masculine pseudonyms, including Middlemarch. In the (inevitable) backlash that ensued, I came across a couple of accounts that suggest George might have adopted the name that more accurately reflected their identity, rather than purely bowing to the patriarchal constraints of the time for publishing writers. Essentially, I’d want George to have the opportunity to decide for themselves, with today’s sensibilities and understanding, how they wish to identify. And then I’d start digging for dirt, like the gossip-hound I am deep down, on all their high-falootin’ Victorian friends…


Who would you want in your lock-down author share-house? Living or dead, dream big! Let me know in the comments below.

6 Breathtaking Books by Hispanic Authors

I’ll admit: being Australian, I’ve been a bit deaf to and detached from Latinx issues in the U.S. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that it’s not something I encounter in my day-to-day life. And where do I turn when I uncover a gap in my knowledge? Books, of course! I did a bit of digging, and pulled up a bunch of Hispanic authors that other readers recommended. Now that I’ve had the chance to fully immerse myself in them, I’ve distilled a list for you, in the event that you need to undertake your own adventure: six breathtaking books by Hispanic authors.

6 Breathtaking Books by Hispanic Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paula by Isabel Allende

Paula - Isabel Allende - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Isabel Allende is one of the most popular living Hispanic authors. She might be better-known for her best-selling magical realism novels, like The House Of The Spirits or Of Love And Shadows, but I started with her memoir, Paula. I first heard about it on the TV show Jane The Virgin (which I highly recommend as well, by the way!), and my curiosity was piqued. It is a memoir written in tribute to Allende’s daughter, who passed away in 1991 (in fact, it was written feverishly by Paula’s bedside, as she struggled to recover from a coma). Obviously, given the content, it is heart-wrenching – on par with Joan Didion’s memoirs of grief and loss – but it’s also strangely uplifting, a tale of resilience and a beautiful way to honour life and the human spirit.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not into hippie-dippie stuff. I tend to roll my eyes when a stranger brings up crystals or star-charts in conversation. When I first read The Alchemist (mostly at the urging of my one remaining hippie-dippie friend who puts up with my scoffing), I wasn’t impressed. But maybe 2020 has changed something in me, maybe I’ve drunk the Kool Aid, maybe I just realise that we all need a little something to cling on to when nothing in our world seems certain. There’s a comfort in this book’s message, that your fate will find you no matter where you are, and that persistence and resilience are all you need to overcome the obstacles that are thrown in your path (for a reason). Or something like that… Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There is not a word that Carmen Maria Machado has written that I won’t devour with glee (seriously, if you’ve come across any that I haven’t covered yet on Keeping Up With The Penguins, let me know and I’ll be on it like white on rice). Her career is just beginning, she has just two full-length books to her name, but her future is bright. You heard it here first. I’ve chosen to include her debut on this list (mostly because I’ve waxed rhapsodic about her follow-up elsewhere). Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of short stories that portends what’s to come of her work: a strange hybrid of all genres, all forms, that terrifies and delights in equal measure. Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.


Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I was going to recommend One Hundred Years Of Solitude for my Gabriel Garcia Marquez read (because it’s not a list of Hispanic authors without Gabriel Garcia Marquez), given that I reviewed it earlier this week. But given, y’know, the state of the world, Love In The Time Of Cholera just seems more… fitting, doesn’t it? It is, as the title suggests, a love story, with at least one character driven by the pursuit of a cure for an infectious illness that disproportionately affects people living in poverty. You can be sure that a clever adaptation (“Love In The Time Of COVID”) is coming, but before it hits (if it hasn’t already), check out the original.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land - Elizabeth Acevedo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to novels in verse, but I feel that puts me in a unique position to recommend entry points for other newbies. Clap When You Land is a great start. It tells the story (yes, collections of poetry can tell cohesive stories, did you know?) of two sisters who share a father, but have entirely unique relationships to the man who ties them together. They are separated by distance, and circumstance, but they connect through their grief and uncovering their family’s secrets. It’s an emotive, contemporary story that offers a window into other worlds – for both the characters and the readers.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Hurricane Season - Fernanda Melchor - Keeping Up With The Penguins

After the American Dirt controversy earlier this year, I was eager to pick up more #ownvoices books by Hispanic authors. That’s why I was overjoyed to receive this copy of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated into English by Sophie Hughes) from the wonderful team at Text Publishing. It’s a murder-mystery, of sorts, set in rural Mexico and inspired by real events (including an honest-to-goodness witch-hunt near Melchor’s hometown). I’m not going to lie: Hurricane Season is not an easy read. I feel obligated to offer trigger warnings for literally everything you can imagine. But, if you think you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s written in beautiful, long, lyrical sentences that will pull you in and keep you there.

Which Hispanic authors would you recommend? Let me know in the comments, so we can grow this list!

7 Books That Will Take You To Another Place

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t had the chance to get out much lately. Whether you’re in mandated isolation, lockdown, or just staying home because it’s the right thing to do, you’re probably getting stick of staring at your own four walls. Luckily, booklovers have a magic power: we can escape to anywhere we want, at any time, as long as the right book is within reach! To stop you going stir crazy, I’ve put together this list of books that will take you to another place…

7 Books That Will Take You To Another Place - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Naples)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Naples is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited urban settlements in the world. It’s got a whole lotta history to get the buffs excited: a UNESCO World Heritage site in its city center, the Roman ruins of Pompeii, and Vesuvius just up the road… but, let’s be real, most of us are really thinking about the food. Naples’ pizza is world famous, and they have more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else on the planet. The Naples of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a lot grittier than the one we day-dream about (violence, poverty, and oppression are rife), but her writing is powerful enough to sweep you up in the story and make you feel as though you’re really there, anyway. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (The Pacific Crest Trail)

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

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 4,720km hiking route along the West Coast of the United States. It covers mountains, national forests and parks, scooting around areas of civilisation and modern conveniences (like roads and toilets). Hiking the whole thing is – obviously – a huge undertaking, usually requiring months or years of preparation. Cheryl Strayed, in the wake of her mother’s death and recovering from heroin addiction, decided to give it a go on a lark. She didn’t set out to do the whole thing (she’s not that crazy), but she still managed nearly 1,800km on her own, with very little preparation or assistance. She immortalised her journey in her memoir, Wild, which went on to top international best-seller lists and make the PCT a go-to destination for hikers in search of solace and revelation. Read my full review of Wild here.

Ulysses by James Joyce (Dublin)

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dublin – “The Fair City” – is the capital of Ireland and ranked by the Globalization and World Cities Network as one of the top thirty cities in the world. You’d think it might’ve changed a lot since James Joyce wrote Ulysses, depicting a day in the life of fictional Dubliner Stephen Bloom, but given the number of Joyce/Bloom tours that still operate in the city, it would seem that a lot remains the same. You can visit the pubs Bloom drank at, sites where Joyce is known to have lived and worked, and even have a gander at statues erected in their honour. That’s if you’re not too busy enjoying the rest of what Dublin has to offer… Read my full review of Ulysses here.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Lagos)

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lagos is the most populous city of Nigeria – in fact, of the entire African continent – and it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. It’s a booming economical and financial hub, with the flood of new money bringing ultramodern sky-rises and developments, but it’s also the center of art and culture in the region. “Nollywood” (the Nigerian film industry) produces about 1,000 films per year, outstripping Hollywood by a considerable margin. After the movies, you can check out the city’s famed nightlife and live music scene. The hustle and bustle, the colours and lights, jump off the page of My Sister, The Serial Killer. It’s a unique glimpse into a part of the world too often inaccessible to Anglophone readers. Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (New York)

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

C’mon, do I really need to explain to you why you might want to visit New York? Fictional depictions of the Big Apple abound, in every form (film, television, books, music, musicals…), so you’re spoiled for choice if that’s what you’re after. I find the depiction in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year Of Rest And Relaxation particularly interesting, though, because it covers a unique time in New York’s history: the year leading up to the September 11 attacks. The (relatively) carefree innocence of the city’s inhabitants is oddly foreboding, the dramatic irony being that the reader knows what’s coming. Seeing as time travel isn’t yet possible (nor any other kind of travel at the moment… ahem!), give this one a try if you’re so inclined.


Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Tokyo)

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tokyo is the capital of Japan, the political and economic center of the country, the seat of the Emperor, and the most populous metropolitan area in the world (with about 37 million inhabitants). I must say though, what I find most alluring about it as a destination isn’t the “attractions”, the history, or the other stuff that we tourists normally gawk at: it’s the idiosyncratic features of modern life in Tokyo that fascinate me. And there’s no better view of them than that offered by Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman. This slim little novel taught me more about Tokyo and urban Japanese culture than anything else I’ve ever read. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

Paris Match by John Von Sothen (Paris)

Paris Match - John Von Sothen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, normally I would prefer books about places to be written by native inhabitants of those places (see… pretty much all of the above). However, I make an exception for Paris. The city of love manages to be both alluring and hostile to outsiders at the same time, which makes it uniquely fun and funny to read about from an outsider’s perspective. That’s what you get in Paris Match (and in Me Talk Pretty One Day, and in pretty much every other American-man-abroad account I’ve read of living in France). John Von Sothen has been living with his Parisian wife and children in the city for nearly two decades, so he’s seen it from both sides now, and his insights are both hilarious and helpful for us would-be Francophiles.

Whew! That was quite a trip around the world, wasn’t it? And without having to check baggage or try to snooze off the jet-lag in a busy airport! Where have you (fictionally) “been” lately? Tell me the comments!

Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet

I want to tell you something about myself, something that will come as a surprise: I am a huge nerd. Last year, when I bought new bookshelves, I got to revel in the glory of the opportunity to properly alphabetise my entire personal library (so much fun!). Then, I bought more bookshelves, and got to do it all over again! (STILL FUN! I swear!) It inspired me to put together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet. Since then, my alphabetising fingers have been getting itchy… then I came across this series from the inimitable Simon over at Stuck In A Book: his thoughts on an author for every letter of the alphabet. I thought I might shamelessly steal that idea for a single post, and try to put together a list of must-read authors for every letter of the alphabet. Can I do it? Even for X? You’re about to find out!

The A-Z Of Must-Read Authors For Every Letter Of The Alphabet - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A: Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’re not surprised, right? I mean, if we’re talking must-read authors in my Anglophone corner of the world, and you’re going alphabetical, you’ve got to start with Austen. Despite her surprisingly small oeuvre (only six completed novels, a handful of stories and an incomplete manuscript), she has influenced English literature more than perhaps any other Regency author. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here, and/or Emma here.

Honourable mentions: Maya Angelou, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Atwood

B: The Brontës

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to just one! The Brontës were the most talented literary family of the Victorian era. Their novels – originally published under androgynous pseudonyms – were proto-feminist women-centred works of art that blazed the trail for female writers who came after them (let’s just forget about the Brontë brother, Branwell, who preferred drinking and dirty dancing to poetry and prose). Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here, and/or Jane Eyre here.

Honourable mentions: Fredrik Backman, Alain de Botton, and Brit Bennett

C: Truman Capote

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

Look, Truman Capote was hardly a stand-up guy. He was pretty liberal with his applications of the ol’ creative license. He loved blowing his own horn. He barely hesitated to sell out his best friends when his career needed a boost with a salacious tell-all. And yet, be damned if he wasn’t an incredible, imitable writer. He revolutionised the true crime genre, steering it away from sparse journalistic re-tellings and using the conventions of fiction to weave a story for the reader. Everything he wrote was carefully considered and expertly crafted. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

Honourable mentions: Maxine Beneba Clarke

D: Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s all too easy to forget that the serialised novel was the primary medium of family entertainment back in the Victorian era. Authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so they tended to stretch things out, which means they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being bloated and dull. In fact, Dickens worked incredibly hard to keep his stories interesting and entertaining, to keep his circulation numbers up and keep the cheques coming. Love romance? Dickens has you covered. Military history? Same. Adventure? Crime? Character study? There’s something for everyone in his catalogue, I swear it. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Honourable mentions: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle

E: Bernadine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bernadine Evaristo shot to international fame last year when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other… in tandem with Margaret Atwood for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a controversial decision, and it ate up plenty of space in the Opinion and Arts pages, which was warranted but also a bit of a shame. The scandal has overshadowed Evaristo’s many other works and achievements: being the first black British writer to assume the No. 1 spot on the UK fiction paperback chart, for instance, not to mention her previous eight novels and novellas.

Honourable mentions: Nora Ephron, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides


F: Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oh, Elena Ferrante. I think I could write a book about how much I love Elena Ferrante (and I’m not the only one). It’s not just the mystique – she’s the world’s best-known living pseudonymous author – that appeals. Her writing is lyrical, but never overwrought, and translated beautifully into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. You should, of course, begin with her Neapolitan Quartet, her series of novels following the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grew up together in mid-20th century Naples with all the violence, poverty, and oppression that entailed. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend (the first book of the Neapolitan Quartet) here.

Honourable mentions: Karen Joy Fowler

G: Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is basically the Madonna of the Australian literary scene. She’s had her ups and downs, she’s come in and out of fashion, but she reinvents herself so constantly and completely that it’s impossible for anyone not to respect her art. She’s written everything – from essay collections to thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction to true crime – and her craft is second to none. I’m yet to encounter a work of Garner’s that I haven’t enthusiastically devoured, and immediately flagged to re-read.

Honourable mentions: Stella Gibbons, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Roxane Gay

H: Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hemingway can be a bit hit-and-miss. Case in point: I fell in love with his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, in an undergrad English Lit unit, but I was exhausted and bored by The Sun Also Rises. He never actually wrote the six-word short story for which he’s well-known (“Baby Shoes”, you know the one), but I’ve heard The Old Man And The Sea is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. It would seem that different Hemingways appeal to different readers: the only way to find yours is to give his books and stories a go for yourself. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Honourable mentions: Chloe Hooper

I: Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The man won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He’s got an OBE. Just about everything he’s ever written has been shortlisted (or won!) for a major literary prize. What more do you need? Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated and lauded English-language authors in the world – he’s a must-read if for no other reason than simple curiosity. The good news is, as far as I’m concerned, his books totally hold up. They’re slightly strange, but not too off-the-wall. They’re sparse, but not underdone. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

J: Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve always said it’s such a shame that the Scandinavians are so well-renowned for their crime noir, when they’ve got brilliant comic novelists like Jonas Jonasson. From humble beginnings as a Swedish blogger, Jonasson has gone on to hit international best-seller lists with his delightful novels about unlikely heroes. His writing is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and warm your cockles, all at once. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Honourable mentions: Tayari Jones


K: Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stephen King has published over sixty books, and combined they’ve sold some 350 million copies around the world. While he tends towards the darker side – horror, thriller, the supernatural – he still has plenty of options for readers who are, shall we say… a bit chicken (myself included!). Still, he’s called the “King Of Horror” (yes, a pun on his name) for very good reason. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you should definitely check him out at his gore-iest. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.

L: Anita Loos

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

Wondering who the heck Anita Loos is, and what she’s doing in an A-Z list of must-read authors? You’re probably not the only one. I certainly hadn’t heard of her before I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list (in fact, I wouldn’t have known Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was anything other than a Marilyn Munroe film). This, Keeper Upperers, is one of the great travesties of our time. Anita Loos was a brilliant comic screenwriter, the first salaried one in Hollywood, and she suffered from that awful chronic condition that affects so many successful women: loving an arsehole of a husband who sucked her dry and kept her in the shadows. Don’t let him win, folks. Don’t sleep on Anita Loos. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Honourable mentions: Melissa Lucashenko

M: Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s no delight quite like that of discovering an author at the beginning of their very bright career. I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where she had been invited to speak after her debut book – a collection of short stories, notoriously difficult to sell – won her international acclaim. She has since also published an incredible memoir, In The Dream House, a true work of art that promises to revolutionise the genre of memoir and has already carved out a spot in the queer literary canon. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Honourable mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison

N: Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t know if it helps or harms Vladimir Nabokov’s reputation that his name has become synonymous with Lolita, a book written from the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert, about his twisted obsession with his teenage stepdaughter. It’s stomach-churning subject matter, to be sure, but to write a book so fascinating, so captivating, about someone so abhorrent is surely a feat not many could manage. Add into the equation the fact that English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet he mastered it so completely as to write more lyrically and more beautifully than any of his Anglophone contemporaries… well, that’s just gob-smacking, isn’t it?

Honourable mentions: Maggie Nelson, Celeste Ng

O: Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Susan Orlean won herself a new legion of fans when her drunk tweets made the headlines last month, giving those of us who have long loved her writing ample opportunity to say: told you so! She is perhaps best-known for her book of The Orchid Thief, based on a piece of investigative journalism into the case of (you guessed it) some stolen orchids. My personal favourite, however, is The Library Book – her surprisingly intimate, incredibly detailed, booklover catnip exploration of the Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986. The point is, there’s something in Orlean’s oeuvre for everyone.

Honourable mentions: Maggie O’Farrell


P: Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I had a devil of a time tracking down a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my local secondhand bookstore haunts. It turns out, readers are still so enamored with her work that they’re unwilling to part with their copies. I suspected, prior to reading her work, that her enduring popularity was due to the mythology surrounding her life and death. She was depressed! Damaged! Beautiful! But it turns out her writing is just as beautiful as she was. Every time I pick up one of her books, I fight against the equal and competing urges to throw them across the room and hug them to my chest. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Honourable mentions: Max Porter

Q: Daniel Quinn

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s an over-used phrase, to be sure, but Daniel Quinn was surely ahead of his time. He was using fiction to explore environmentalism and the dangers of an anthropocentric worldview long before it was cool. Some of his ideas were controversial (if I understand correctly, international efforts to aid countries ravaged by famines made the famines… worse, somehow?), but he still managed to merge philosophy and fiction in a way that the average person (i.e., me) could understand. Plus, he coined a whole bunch of phrases that have slipped into common parlance in certain circles (see: the boiling frog, the Great Forgetting).

R: Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, Sally Rooney: the millennial wunderkind. She’s been called everything from the voice of a generation to the 21st century’s answer to J.D. Salinger. All this despite having only two full-length books (Conversations With Friends, and Normal People) under her belt. And she’s just 29 years old. What have YOU done lately? The world is waiting with bated breath for the next great novel from the pen of its newest literary darling. I’m sure she’s up to the challenge. Read my full review of Normal People here.

Honourable mentions: Jean Rhys

S: David Sedaris

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

I’m a relatively recent convert to David Sedaris, but holy heck – he’s got me hook, line, and sinker. He is truly the master of humorous autobiographical writing, and can find the funny in even the most dire of life circumstances. (Take, for instance, his musings on his failed attempts to panic-buy at the onset of a global pandemic.) His secret sauce seems to be a unique combination of cutting insight – no one is spared – and equally powerful self-deprecation. I can’t think of anyone else who could insult someone in such a way that they laughed ’til they cried, and make fun of himself at the same time, in quite the way Sedaris can. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Honourable mentions: Mary Shelley, Zadie Smith, and John Steinbeck

T: Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I couldn’t put together a list of must-read authors without including one of the Russian masters. Leo Tolstoy has a reputation for being wordy and, look, it’s not undeserved. War And Peace comes in at about 587k words. Anna Karenina at 340k. (For reference: most books published today come in well under 100k.) And yet, his popularity endures. That’s because his novels contain some universal truths, some enduring sensibility that we can all relate to. Either that, or people just really like showing off.

Honourable mentions: Maria Tumarkin


U: Gabrielle Union

We're Going To Need More Wine - Gabrielle Union - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Okay, fine, maybe I’ve been swayed by my love of late-90s teen comedy movies (and U is a bear of a letter). Still, I stand by the inclusion of Gabrielle Union in an A-Z list of must-read authors. She has parlayed her early success playing teenagers in various competitive and romantic dilemmas into a career as an activist in women’s health and well-being. Her thesis is We’re Going To Need More Wine, a sentiment that was oddly prescient given that it was published long before the world fell to pieces. She has since expanded her creative efforts to include children’s books, focused on positive representations of non-traditional families.

V: Sarah Vaughn

Anatomy Of A Scandal - Sarah Vaughan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, we’re getting down to the bear letters, but I’m going strong! V is for Vaughn, as in Sarah Vaughn – not the jazz singer, but the British novelist and journalist. She has parlayed her illustrious career writing for outlets like The Guardian into best-selling fiction that explores power, privilege, and politics. Even with a bunch of success notches already punched into her belt – including film and television rights, awards, and over twenty translations of her work – Vaughan is still going strong.

W: Alice Walker

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alice Walker is, without doubt, one of the greatest living American writers and feminists (or, as per the term she herself coined, “womanist”). Most of her best-known full length fiction was published in the ’70s and ’80s, but it continues to resonate – particularly in the age of #MeToo and #BLM – with its searing depictions of racism, sexism, violence and resilience. But she’s not just a wildly successful and brilliant novelist: her poetry, her short fiction, her journalism, and (most importantly) her activism are also ground-breaking and vital contributions to contemporary life.

Honourable mentions: Colson Whitehead, Charlotte Wood, and Edith Wharton

X: Xenophon

A History Of My Times - Xenophon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, I had to reach WAY back into the archives to find an X I could get behind… but I found one! Xenophon was an Athenian philosopher, and I inherited one of his books as a result of merging marital bookshelves. Turns out, my husband is onto something: a lot of what we know of Ancient Greece is derived from his histories, as well as that which we know of his mate Socrates. He was also kind enough to write in Attic Greek – the old-timey equivalent of plain language – which means his books were more accessible to his contemporaries, and they’ve been a boon for translators in the modern world.

Y: Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d be forgiven for associating Hanya Yanagihara’s name only with her international best-seller and near-universally acclaimed novel, A Little Life. It has won (and broken) hearts for five years now, and it’s still going strong. But Yanagihara is a multi-talented gal; she’s also a travel writer, a magazine editor, and she wrote a previous novel (based on the real story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) that is arguably just as worthy of attention. She is a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature, beloved by critics and readers alike.

Z: Markus Zusak

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

Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief, made the Second World War tangible for youngsters in a way that not many other contemporary writers have managed. Through his story of the young girl who steals books and learns to read (narrated by Death, into the bargain), he’s captured their heads and hearts and maybe – just maybe – taught the kids enough about the horrors of world conflict to make them inclined to stop history repeating itself. What’s extra-interesting is that the success of that novel led him to take a decade-long break from writing and publishing, a dry spell only recently broken with the rains of his new novel, Bridge Of Clay (an epic coming-of-age story). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.


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