Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 2 of 39)

13 Books By Nobel Prize Winners

Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock, you probably know at least something about Nobel Prizes. They’re five prizes awarded each year to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. Most people associate Nobel Prizes with the science-y winners – your Marie Curies and your Albert Einsteins – or the Peace prize winners – like Obama and the World Food Programme, but booklovers know that the Nobel Prizes for Literature are awarded to writers who have changed the world, too. Here are thirteen books by Nobel Prize winners.

13 Books By Nobel Prize Winners - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
No Nobel Prizes for figuring out that if you buy a book through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights - Olga Tokarczuk - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 2018

Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2018 “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”, according to the judge’s comments. That saw her book Flights (the English translation, by Jennifer Croft, having been published the same year) fly off the shelves. It’s a fragmentary novel that weaves together reflections on mortality, motion, and migration.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1954

Hemingway got the Nobel Prize gong in 1954 “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style”. I can’t say I saw that mastery on display in The Sun Also Rises (and maybe the judges couldn’t either, which is why they didn’t shout it out in their comments). To me, it was just a book about a bloke drinking with his buddies in Spain, moping about having his dick blown off and using it as an excuse to avoid the woman he loves, but others have called it a “poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation”. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1982

Gabriel García Márquez is the Big Daddy of Latin American magical realism, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”. One Hundred Years Of Solitude is a bit of a slog for your average reader (ahem, me), but even so, we can see how it’s come to define the genre. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

Death At Intervals by José Saramago

Death At Intervals - Jose Saramago - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1998

José Saramago wrote the kind of novels that your unabashedly irreverent grandpa would have written if he had the literary chops. The Nobel Prize committee described him in their comments as a writer “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”. Take, for instance, Death At Intervals (or Death With Interruptions in some territories): a slim little novel about an unnamed country where Death inexplicably goes on strike, and nobody dies for months on end, until Death decides its time to speak for herself… Read my full review of Death At Intervals here.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1949

William Faulkner didn’t believe in any “great writer” nonsense. He once said “Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory.” So, when he got the Nobel Prize “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”, it was all raw talent, baby! As I Lay Dying is a weird little book, but rich. It’s a definitive Southern Gothic novel, with a family transporting their dead mother’s body to her desired resting place, each of them narrating the journey in turn. Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1976

Of all the Nobel Prize winners in this list, Saul Bellow is the one that flummoxed me the most. The judges’ comments cited his “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work”, but… I don’t see it! Hats off to you if you can, but the protagonist of The Adventures Of Augie March is one of the most baffling characters I’ve ever encountered. He just never DOES anything! Simply wanders about, waiting for life to happen to him! Maybe if I’d been part of Bellow’s “contemporary culture” it might’ve made more sense, but as it stands, nah. Sorry. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Augie March here.

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro occupies an interesting middle-ground amongst the recent Nobel Prize winners. He’s a British writer, but he was raised by immigrant parents still deeply connected to their culture and spoke Japanese at home. He writes Great Novels about Big Themes, that are also highly readable and get made into high-grossing films. According to the Prize judges, he’s a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. In my reading experience, there’s no better representation of that than I found in An Artist Of The Floating World, a criminally underrated book by Ishiguro that sadly barely gets a mention. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Kim - Rudyard Kipling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1907

In their comments, the Nobel judges said they gave Rudyard Kipling the gong “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author”. I can’t help but suspect they were thinking more of his poetry and his children’s stories than Kim when they said that. There’s nothing particularly originally imaginative or virile about a picaresque-cum-spy novel featuring a young boy who has greatness thrust upon him and comes to realise that spiritual equilibrium is worth more than material wealth, as far as I can tell. Read my full review of Kim here.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Murphy - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1969

Samuel Beckett had a lot going on in his life. He was stabbed by a pimp in Paris shortly before the publication of Murphy, for one. When the Nobel judges awarded him the prize “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”, it smacks to me of the grown-ups trying to prove they’re still Hip and With It by inviting one of the cool kids to their dinner party. Beckett is probably better known now for his plays than this weird mash-up of a novel, and that’s probably not such a bad thing. Read my full review of Murphy here.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1993

Here’s one I can get behind! Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality” (according to the Nobel judges), absolutely understood the assignment. Beloved is a powerful, if rather uncomfortable and unsettling, story of the inherited trauma of slavery told through the lives of one haunted family. Her other novels also explored race and gender long before they became diversity buzzwords in the publishing industry; Morrison was so good they simply couldn’t ignore her. Read my full review of Beloved here.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 2007

Doris Lessing seems to have gone out of favour a bit now, which is a shame. “That epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”, according to the Nobel Prize judges, wrote a heck of a book in The Golden Notebook. It’s intriguingly meta, laying out the four notebooks of a struggling writer who’s on track for a mental breakdown, until she finds the key to her novel, and her reunification of the self, in a fifth notebook (which is, you guessed it, golden). Read my full review of The Golden Notebook here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1962

I was actually really surprised by how damn good The Grapes Of Wrath was, though I clearly shouldn’t have been. John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, and that’s a bang-on description of this book. It charts the journey of a family of Dust Bowl migrants as things go from bad, to worse, to worser for them in their effort to find a new life for themselves away from debt and misery. The ending is a gut-punch the likes of which I’ve never encountered in a book, before or since. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

Lord Of The Flies - William Golding - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1983

Look, I know lots of traditional literary types froth over William Golding. English teachers would surely be lost without him, a yawning black hole in their year-in-year-out syllabus where Lord Of The Flies should be. The Nobel committee awarded him the prize for literature, “for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today”. I call bullshit. Perhaps my opinion suffered for only having read this book as an adult (no idea where I was the day that it was rolled out in my own high school English studies), but I can’t shake my suspicion that the committee were having a laugh. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

Stay tuned! The 2021 Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on 7 October 2021.

4 Moving Books About 9/11

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, 9/11. Naturally, anniversaries are tough for survivors and those significantly impacted by such events, so my heart goes out to them. It’s also given me cause to look back and think about how we write and read about what happened that day. I’ve always been of the opinion that we need time and distance from something to write about it in a way that truly resonates (which is why I’ve avoided reading any of the rushed-to-market books about the Trump presidency or coronavirus). Very few books about 9/11, so far, have moved past the informational and into the emotional. Perhaps one day they’ll be as common as historical WWII novels, but for now, here’s a short list of truly moving books about 9/11.

4 Moving Books About 9/11 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Although Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close doesn’t take place at the time of the 9/11 attacks, the impact of them echoes throughout Foer’s novel. It’s narrated by nine-year-old Oskar, whose father was killed in the attacks one year prior. Oskar discovers a key in the bottom of a vase, presumably once belonging to his father, and he undertakes a quest all across New York City to discover what it unlocks. Oskar is traumatised by the events of 9/11, he experiences depression and insomnia (which he describes as “wearing heavy boots”), and his search for closure made manifest in the key gives him purpose to go on each day. Bring tissues!

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding Edge - Thomas Pynchon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thomas Pynchon isn’t exactly known for his moving prose – heck, he’s not even known for being particularly readable – but Bleeding Edge is a book about 9/11 with an interesting take. Pynchon takes the already-surreal events of that day and transposes them onto a dream-like detective novel, with poignant parallels that continue to resonate even as time goes on. The story follows an ex-certified fraud examiner (from the brilliantly-named agency Nail ‘Em and Tail ‘Em), as she chases down conspirators making the most of the dot-com bubble burst, navigates separation from her ex-husband and manages custody of their two children, all as the threat of 9/11 looms on the horizon.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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

Normally, books about 9/11 (or, indeed, any tragic event) have a sympathetic narrator at their heart, someone you can root for and cry for. Not so in My Year Of Rest And Relaxation! Moshfegh has created a character so unlikeable that her Goodreads reviews are plagued with complaints. The unnamed narrator – beautiful, rich, entirely self-absorbed – decides, around the time of September 2000, that she’s had enough of the world and she’d like to sleep for an entire year. Sure enough, she locks herself up in her apartment with enough sleeping pills to take down a rhinoceros. She, and the city (well, the world), are in for a rude awakening when she finally emerges.

The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett M. Graff

This is the only non-fiction book I’ve included in this list of books about 9/11, because it’s the only one I’ve found that has the same emotional arcs and resonance as fiction. Most non-fiction books on this subject are quite dry, I’ve found, but The Only Plane In The Sky – being an oral history – absolutely bleeds humanity and meaning. Graff pulls together hundreds of transcripts and documents to tell the stories of first responders, witnesses, government officials, survivors, and loved ones, painting a comprehensive portrait of the day that changed their lives, and the world. If you’re feeling particularly brave and emotionally stalwart-y, you can listen to the audiobook, which won many best-of awards last year.

Banned Books Around The World

Earlier this year, five people were arrested in Hong Kong for “conspiring to publish, distribute, exhibit or copy seditious publications”. The publications in question were a series of children’s books about sheep. The Guardians Of Sheep Village sought to explain to children the 2019 democracy protests, The Janitors Of Sheep Village depicted sheep workers going on strike, and The 12 Braves Of Sheep Village saw twelve sheep escape their village’s wolf overloads by boat (in reference to the twelve Hongkongers who sought to escape by speedboat to Taiwan last year). It seems unthinkable that, in the 21st century, there are governments in the world still trying to control and censor what their constituents read… but here we are. Take a look at some of these banned books around the world.

Banned Books Around The World - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Banned or not, I’ll earn a small commission from any book bought through an affiliate link on this page.

Note: I’ve chosen not to delve into the books banned in Nazi Germany, partially because it’s such a long list in and of itself, but mostly because there’s a lot of potential for insensitivity that I wish to avoid. Plus, I didn’t want to give the impression that book banning and book burning are problems specific to one geography and government…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but a lot of governments sure did get their knickers in a knot over it. In 1928, the Chinese translation by Rao Shu-yi was denied publication by China’s Central Bureau, and booksellers weren’t allowed to stock or sell any version of the novel. It was also banned in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, for violation of their respective obscenity laws, until the 1960s. There was quite a famous court case about it, and current editions of the book (like mine) are dedicated to the jurors who acquitted the publishers on charges of obscenity. Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a (you guessed it) brave new world, where everyone’s high and having sex, and babies are made in test tubes. It’s a sort of dystopia in utopian clothing, if you will. In this cautionary tale, the Irish government found “comments against religion and the traditional family”, as well as “strong language” and “sexual promiscuity” – grounds enough to have it banned in 1932. They weren’t alone in their condemnation; Australia also banned Brave New World the same year, and the Indian government called Huxley a “pornographer”. I guess we know which countries to avoid if we want sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll after the apocalypse… Read my full review of Brave New World here.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oooh boy! *cracks knuckles* If there were awards for most banned books around the world, The Satanic Verses would surely be a contender. Salman Rushdie was roundly condemned for his alleged “blasphemous treatment of a character modeled after the Prophet Muhammad and of the transcription of the Qurʾān”. The Iran Ayatollah was so ticked off, he put a hit out on Rushdie (a fatwa), forcing him into hiding for years. He couldn’t leave his safe house (which changed every few months) without protection. The book was banned in (*deep breath*): Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand.

Special mention: Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, was murdered in 1991 as a result of his involvement with The Satanic Verses and the fatwa issued on anyone involved with its publication. Always, always, always #NameTheTranslator – sometimes they die for the work they do. Vale.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s hard to imagine any government finding offense in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. It’s a children’s book, for goodness sake – and largely nonsensical, to boot! I’m sorry to say that doesn’t stop them. In 1900, a school in the United States proposed that the book implied expletives and alluded to masturbation (no, I’m not kidding), and “other sexual fantasies”. I mean, I personally am not turned on by the Cheshire Cat, but go off, I guess. Later, in 1931, the powers that be in Hunan, China, banned Alice and co. because anthropomorphised animals are “insulting”, somehow. General Ho Chien contended that teaching children to regard humans and animals as equals would be “disastrous”. And then finally, back in America in the 1960s, a whole new batch of parents worried that Alice’s adventures would encourage kids to try hallucinogenic drugs. All told, these are some of the most ridiculous reasons I’ve heard for banning books. Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Banning Frankenstein might seem funny on the face of it (or warranted, depending on your view of the macabre), but there’s actually a dark truth behind this one. In 1955, the South African government banned Frankenstein for containing “obscene” or “indecent” material. The thing is, this was shortly after the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and amendments to the Immorality Act, introduced to prevent “Europeans” and “non-Europeans” forming families. Yes, this is some awful apartheid shit. The government saw in Shelley’s science fiction an “indecent” message, about the “amalgamation” of people. Just thinking about it makes me shudder… Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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

Turns out a book about a bloke who wanders around Dublin for a day, drinking and wanking and forgetting to pick up the perfume he bought for his wife, raised some eyebrows. Who could have guessed? Ulysses has been banned by various governments since it first appeared in serial form in 1918-20. An excerpt featuring the aforementioned cheeky wank came to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and they did everything they could to suppress its circulation – the United States Postal Service even burned copies that were sent in the mail. A landmark court case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933, finally caused the ban to be lifted. The United Kingdom also lifted their ban on its distribution shortly after. Australia held firm, though, and suppressed its circulation until the 1950s. Read my full review of Ulysses here.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Simone de Beauvoir once said that The Second Sex was her attempt to explain “why a woman’s situation, still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world’s basic problems”. Luckily, she first published it in France, where permissive attitudes and effective absence of obscenity laws meant that anything goes in publishing – even broads getting mouthy about their shitty circumstances. Francoist Spain held a different view, and banned the book for “advocacy of feminism” (they didn’t even try to cloak it in euphemism, bless them); they didn’t account for the brave feminists who would smuggle in copies of the book and circulate it themselves, until the ban was lifted and an accurate translation permitted for publication.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the very first books to be formally banned in the United States was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1852, upon its publication, the southern Confederate States banned it for its abolitionist philosophy and for “arousing debates on slavery”. (Funnily enough, the States – now “United” – are still having that same argument about, for instance, The Hate U Give, alleging that it arouses abolitionist arguments regarding policing and debates about racial profiling.) Stowe’s novel was also banned in Russia by Nicholas I, because in presenting a view that, y’know, all humans might be equal it “undermined religious ideals” of the country.

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Forget about Lady Chatterley and her lover: Tropic Of Cancer is the go if you want 20th century smut. Unsurprisingly, it was subject to similar bans and censorship. It even caused the pearl-clutchers in France a bit of bother. They initially allowed its publication because it was written in English and intended only for English-speaking readers… but once word got out about its misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and straight-up eroticism, authorities and conservatives pushed for an outright ban. Meanwhile, around the world, it was banned decisively and immediately. The United States objected to its sexually explicit content and vulgarity up until the 1960s, South Africa until the 1980s. Interested readers, of course, got around these restrictions by smuggling the book everywhere that wanted it, leading to a lot of court cases and criminal trials, which in turn only boosted Miller’s popularity as a purveyor of literary porn. Read my full review of Tropic Of Cancer here.

What Is Magical Realism?

Keeper Upperers, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t know fear until a book nerd brought up “magical realism” in a conversation and you had to nod along like you knew what the heck they were talking about. What is magical realism? Is it, like, realism that’s so good, it’s magical? Not quite. I’m here to save you from my fate (looking like a fool among people far smarter than me) with this handy for-beginner’s guide to one of the trendiest literary genres of the 20th century.

What Is Magical Realism? - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission – like magic!

What is magical realism?

Let’s start at the very beginning with a basic definition. Magical realism is a literary genre where stories are set in the real world, the one you and I know, but there’s an element or undercurrent of magic running through it. It falls in the middle of the Venn diagram between literary fiction and fantasy. True lovers of the genre would balk at it being described at “fantasy lite”, and they’d have a lot of really good explanations as to why that’s not right, but for our purposes here, that explanation will do.

What Is Magical Realism? - Venn Diagram of Literary Fiction and Fantasy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Essential Elements of Magical Realism

There are a few key things that every work of magical realism will have. Keep an eye out for:

Realistic Setting

All magical realism novels take place in the real world. The writer doesn’t invent a new world – the Planet Zorb 3959 or Land of Egelaria – as the setting for their story. You’d believe the story was taking place in your neighbourhood, or one like it, until… something weird happens.

Magic

The second key component of magical realism is, well, magic. Even though the story is set in the real world, there’s something supernatural or physically impossible that sticks its nose in at some point. That might be a talking animal, a levitating grandmother, a child that doesn’t age… And there’s no “abracadabra” to introduce them. They’re just presented as normal, the way the writer might introduce a pot plant or a traffic sign.

No Explanation Needed

So, a fancier guide to magical realism might call this “authorial reticence”, but this ain’t one of those. When the author/narrator introduces the magical part of a novel written in the magical realism style, it’s very important that they don’t explain to you why it’s happening. Fantasy epics will have reams of backstory, explaining exactly how the magic works and how the present situation came to be. In magical realism, pigs just start flying, and you’re meant to cope with it all on your own. The narrator is completely indifferent; in fact, if they’re doing it right, you might not even notice at first that something very weird just happened.

Important note: There’s also a political aspect to a lot of magical realism, where the weird stuff is used to criticise a government or political incident of the day. However, those aspects are kind of unique to the time and place in which they’re written, and often left up to interpretation, so I’ve left them off the “essential” elements list here.

History of Magical Realism

Authors actually pinched the idea of “magical realism” from art (the paint-on-canvas type). In 1925, a German art critic named Franz Roh coined the term “magischer realismus” to describe New Objectivity, a popular style of painting (at the time) that sought to make the ordinary look extraordinary. It was a whole find-the-beauty-in-every-day-objects deal.

Some writers were using magical realism long before that (think Kafka and his giant bug in The Metamorphosis, published ten years before Roh put pen to paper), but this was still a major turning point in our understanding of – and the popularity of – magical realism as a literary genre. Over the course of the 20th century, there were a few major “movements” or peaks in the publication of works of magical realism (one in the ’20s, another in the late ’40s, and a third in the late ’60s-early ’70s). Now, it’s kind of settled in as an accepted style/genre of literature, alongside all the others.

(Well… mostly. There’s still a lot of academic debate – isn’t there always? – about what “counts” as magical realism, whether magical realism even exists, etc. etc. I tried reading through and summarising the major talking points for you, but honestly, it made me want to pluck my eyes out with a fork. Suffice it to say: haters gonna hate.)

Magical Realism and Geography

Magical realism is most commonly associated with the literature of Latin America (the southern areas of the continent that speak Romance languages, which is a disingenuous way of saying were-ravaged-by-colonialism). One of the first magical realists was Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian author who was writing that way before that German bloke came up with a fancy name for it. Now, we most commonly associate magical realism with Gabriel García Márquez (Colombian), and Isabel Allende (Chilean), and a handful of others from the same rough geography and time period.

That’s not to say that other parts of the world haven’t produced awesome writers of magical realism; it’s just that their work isn’t usually described in those terms. Take Haruki Murakami, with his blokes chasing cats down wells and all the freaky shit that happens there – that’s absolutely Japanese magical realism, but it’s rare that anyone says that in a review. Closer to home (for me, anyway), I would consider Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip a fabulous example of First Nations magical realism in Australia. So, geography might influence the way that we think about and identify magical realism, but it certainly doesn’t define it, and it doesn’t stop anyone from anywhere in the world writing it.

Examples of Magical Realism

So, now that you’re sorted with a bit of history and a solid definition of magical realism, you probably want some examples, right? Well, you’re getting some, either way. Check these out…

One Hundred Years Of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Yes, Gabriel García Márquez is the Granddaddy of magical realism in the sense that he’s the name people most commonly associate with the literary style. He also won the Nobel Prize for it in 1982, so there’s that. One Hundred Years Of Solitude is one of his best-known works; it’s not an easy read, necessarily, but it’s a must if you’re planning on having any conversations or debates about magical realism any time soon. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

Like Water For Chocolate - Laura Esquivel - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate is probably one of the best for-beginners books of magical realism. The concept is quite simple to grasp, even though the narrator never explains it explicitly: a girl loves to cook, and her emotions are infused into her food. If she’s sad while she’s baking a cake, everyone who eats it will feel sad, too. There’s a fun love story and a crazy cast of characters, and a few good recipes to boot! Read my full review of Like Water For Chocolate here.

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is where we traipse onto territory that might be more familiar to us in other terms (American literature, slavery narratives, etc.) but is also actually a good example of magical realism. In Morrison’s story, a ghost is the embodiment of the collective history of black slaves, and given agency to tell their story throughout the narrative. A brilliant device, if a harrowing read. Read my full review of Beloved here.

The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is a really interesting writer who incorporates magical realism into much of her work. She primarily writes short stories, all of which are worth a read as examples of magical realism and as excellent yarns, but The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake is a novel-length version. Think of it as the other side of the Like Water For Chocolate coin: in this story, a child develops the magical ability to taste the emotions of others in their food.

Kafka On The Shore - Haruki Murakami - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

I mentioned earlier that Murakami is a great example of an incredibly popular and critically acclaimed writer who writes magical realism without it (usually) being called magical realism. Kafka On The Shore is one such example. Keep an eye out for the talking cats in this strange dreamy novel about two people at the opposite ends of life who are drawn together by powers seemingly beyond their control.

15 Short Books To Read

There’s something really satisfying about a slim little paperback. They slide easily into bags, they fit neatly into nearly-full bookshelves, and they hurt far less when you drop them on your face or foot. I’ve put together this list of short books to read (note: these aren’t necessarily quick reads, if that’s what you’re after check out this list), all of which are under 220 pages.

15 Short Books To Read - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Here’s a short story to kick things off: if a reader uses an affiliate link on this page to buy a book, a blogger receives a small commission, and they all live happily ever after.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

180 pages

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy traverses the whole universe in just 180 pages. The world as we know it comes to an end, and disgruntled British gentleman Arthur Dent unintentionally hitches a ride to safety. Over the course of his short, but action-packed, adventure, he meets aliens, learns to speak their language, and discovers the true meaning of the universe – complaining all the while. Pick this one up if you’re in the mood for a short book that’s also a wild romp, with some great advice into the bargain (don’t panic!). Read my full review of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang - Keeping Up With The Penguins

183 pages

The Vegetarian runs to 183 stunning pages, for which Han Kang won the 2016 International Man Booker Award. In this dark Kafka-esque tale, Yeong-hye’s ordinary and orderly life is disrupted by a series of brutal and bloody nightmares. She decides, as a result, to renounce meat and live as a vegetarian, much to her husband’s chagrin. As her family circles the wagons to get her back on the righteous path to bacon, Yeong-hye’s choice to eat only plants becomes more and more sacred to her, and she’s forced to take ever-more drastic counter-measures to protect it. Read my full review of The Vegetarian here.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

167 pages

In The Alchemist, a young Andalusian shepherd boy learns some pretty tough life lessons over the course of 167 pages. He finds love, and loses it. He makes friends with strangers, and friends become strangers. He searches the world for treasure, only to find that the real treasure was inside him all along (or something). It all sounds very heavy, but it’s actually a very readable allegory, a fairy-tale for adults full of metaphor and meaning. Read my full review of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho here.

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Before The Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

213 pages

Coffee is magical, we all know that for sure, but the coffee served in the small Tokyo cafe at the centre of Before The Coffee Gets Cold is especially so. It allows the drinker to travel back in time… but only for as long as it takes for their beverage to cool. People come to the cafe seeking a confrontation, a final farewell, a special meeting, but they don’t always find exactly what they’re looking for. In just 213 pages, Kawaguchi will change the way you think about the past, and what you might change if you could.

Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

189 pages

Sula is a short book that will wrench your heart from your chest. Morrison’s characters are richly drawn and carefully crafted with an economy of language that will blow your mind. Sula and Nel share a bond that withstands all manner of threats throughout their youth, but when their life paths diverge it threatens to sever the ties that bind them. Sula is ostracised by the community, while Nel becomes its shining star. Then, there’s a betrayal – will their relationship survive it, as it has survived everything else?

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint Exupery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

118 pages

The Little Prince is a children’s story that adults can enjoy in equal measure. Complete with beautiful illustrations, it depicts the predicament of a pilot who finds himself stranded in the middle of the desert, with only a precocious little prince for company. As the pilot tries to fix the wreckage of his plane, the prince slowly reveals how he came to land in the desert and what it will take for him to return to his true home. Bring tissues, this book might be short but it will definitely make you cry! Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

172 pages

Mrs Dalloway may be short (172 pages), but you’ll be chewing over its contents for a long, long time. In vivid modernist prose, Woolf reveals the turbulent inner life of a society lady as she prepares for a party, and the strange link she shares to a traumatised war veteran. I had a tough time deciphering most of Mrs Dalloway myself, but I figure that’s my fault more so than the book’s; plenty of other readers, who are far smarter than me, have plumbed untold depths in this short novel. Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

128 pages

Hemingway is famous for his brevity, and it is on best display in his final novel, The Old Man And The Sea. It only takes a paragraph for him to lay out the story – the old Cuban man who hasn’t caught a fish for eighty-four days, and the young boy who cares for him (even though his family forbids him from joining the man on his cursed voyages). It’s a simple tale, told in short, sharp prose, but one that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys - Keeping Up With The Penguins

171 pages

It took Charlotte Brontë 590 pages to tell the story of the relatively-privileged young governess Jane Eyre, but it took Jean Rhys just 171 to reveal its other, darker side – that of the wife Jane’s hero Mr Rochester locked in the attic, Antoinette Cosway. In one of the most brilliant re-tellings of contemporary literature, Rhys explores what drove a bright young woman to “madness”, sold into marriage to a wealthy Englishman and forced from her ancestral home. Wide Sargasso Sea a short book, but it packs one heck of a punch.

Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

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

130 pages

With a title like that – Men Explain Things To Me – you’d expect this book to be a multi-volume set. But Solnit has learned an important lesson, that of concision, that her interlocutors seem to have skipped. In 130 arch and funny pages, Solnit explores many of the ways in which the patriarchy keeps women quiet and overlooked: marriage, sex, violence, family, colonialism, and more. Perhaps most importantly, in terms of cultural impact, this is also the book that brought the term “mansplaining” to the mainstream.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

152 pages

Of all the short books I’ve read (as you can see from this list, there’s been a few!), I don’t think any surprised and delighted me more than A Single Man. It is a blunt but beautiful portrayal of a day in the life of an aging gay man whose partner has recently passed away. Of course, at the time it’s set, their relationship was cloaked in euphemism and forbidden by law, so Isherwood’s protagonist is never recognised as a true widower. It’s not a cheerful read, but it is a deeply moving one. Read my full review of A Single Man here.

Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck - Keeping Up With The Penguins

103 pages

Of Mice And Men is beloved and bemoaned by high-school students around the globe in equal measure, but it’s frequently assigned reading for them either way because it’s both short and multifaceted. Set during the Great Depression, George and Lennie form what we we might today call their own “found family”, an unlikely pair that care for and protect each other. Sadly, they can’t protect each other from everything. In just over a hundred pages, this book will break your heart (if it didn’t already traumatise you in high school English).

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Keeping Up With The Penguins

204 pages

Franz Kafka’s stories are typically short – ironically, The Trial is actually one of the longest! But it’s also one of the few that you can easily find published as a book in its own right. This tale is terrifying in an oh-my-gosh-it-could-happen-to-me kind of way: a regular man living his regular life finds himself suddenly and inexplicably arrested, forced to defend himself against an unknown crime. Kafka’s twisted premise is pure nightmare fuel, so good thing it’s not any longer!

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

149 pages

A Clockwork Orange is a short book, yes, but beyond that it’s kind of hard to describe. Is it science fiction? Dystopia? Horror? All of the above? Even if you’ve watched the film and think you’re pretty tough, you’re probably not prepared for the stomach-churning ultra-violence of Burgess’ best-known short novel. In a strange invented language, Burgess describes the tumultuous inner- and outer-world of Alex, a teen confronting the big questions about good and evil far before his time. Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

A Horse Walks Into A Bar - David Grossman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

198 pages

A Horse Walks Into A Bar is a short but searing story, set in a small dive bar in Israel. A comedian takes the stage for his final show, and his on-stage patter becomes a memoir (long before Nanette made it cool). He is forced to confront the one decision that changed the course of his life, a Sliding Doors moment that led him to this stage, this night, and this audience. Grossman’s book is candid, confronting, and chilling – you’ll barely notice the 198 pages flying by.

« Older posts Newer posts »