Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Satire (page 1 of 2)

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown (but the trope itself has existed far longer). Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the King and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind. We all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


Less – Andrew Sean Greer

On my journey out of the post-Ulysses haze, I found myself unsurprisingly in the mood for some “light” reading. Big Little Lies was a page turner, don’t get me wrong, but there weren’t a whole lot of laughs to be had amidst all the rape, abuse, and manslaughter. Browsing my shelves, I happened upon a little light blue spine: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer. It piqued my interest, as I knew it to be a unicorn: an #ownvoices comedy that had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

You might wonder how I knew it was a comedy, #ownvoices or otherwise, and to answer that I’ll give you a short excerpt from an event I attended at the Sydney Writer’s Festival that year, Andrew Sean Greer in conversation with local legend David Marr:

Marr: “Look, I don’t know how familiar you are with Australian English. Do you know the meaning of the word ‘fuckwit’?”

[audience laughs]

Greer: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that.”

Marr: “It means ‘fool’. It’s a vivid local piece of patois to mean ‘fool’.”

Greer: “Wonderful! ‘Fuckwit’?”

Marr: “Yes, fuckwit. Because the hero of your book is, it appears, for a good deal of the book, a complete fuckwit.”

And with that, I was formally introduced to the protagonist, Arthur Less – the one that David Marr described as a fuckwit, in tones of great affection (as Australians are wont to do). On that basis alone, I was inclined to give Less a go. I also noticed that one of the highly complimentary blurbs on my edition came from none other than my girl, Karen Joy Fowler. That settled it: I had to read this book.

Arthur Less worries that he is the “first homosexual to ever grow old” (which made me laugh… until I thought about the heavier connotations, “old” gays being the only ones who survived the AIDS crisis, not so funny). He finds himself suddenly single, when his long-time fuck-buddy dumps him to marry a far more eligible (and age appropriate) bachelor. Arthur Less decides that he must act. He can’t RSVP “no” to the nuptials and admit defeat, but he couldn’t possibly attend either, especially with his own 50th birthday looming… so, he proceeds to accept every half-baked invitation he’s received to literary events around the world, and sends his ex his regrets, citing “unfortunate” prior engagements.

And there we have it: this fuckwit is relatable as all hell. Planning a round-the-world trip on the spur of the moment to avoid an awkward social encounter? Big mood!





This premise gives Greer the opportunity to absolutely tear shreds off the literary world through satire. He never misses an opportunity to lampoon the self-reverential ridiculousness of it all. Arthur Less is “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”. His first stop is New York, where he chairs an event for a wildly successful and seriously overrated sci-fi writer (Less suspects he was the only author desperate enough to do the gig for free). Then, he joins a panel at a festival in Mexico, only to learn that all the preeminent guests are dead. In Italy, a generous translation of his debut novel wins an award, judged by a committee of high school students. On and on it goes…

The episodic structure also allows Greer to parade a series of colourful characters through Arthur Less’s voyage of self-discovery, BUT – I hasten to add – this isn’t your standard white-guy-sees-the-world-and-comes-home-transformed narrative. Greer is very careful not to fetishise the “exotic locals”. Arthur Less, the fuckwit, is always the butt of the joke. And his “self-discovery” seems almost accidental. He didn’t set out with any intention of transformation, he just wanted to avoid his ex’s wedding, and his personal growth is just a side-effect of his bumbling adventures.

My favourite part: Arthur Less accepts a visiting professor post at a university in Germany. He teaches a class called “Read Like A Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein”. It becomes immediately clear to the reader and everyone else that Arthur Less’s insistence that he is “fluent” in German is a complete delusion. Hilarious!





The narration feels very personal, a conversational third-person perspective, or so we think. In a Vanity Fair-esque twist, we learn towards the end that the story is being told by… shall we say, a friend of Arthur Less (for once, I won’t give spoilers – I don’t want to ruin the fun!). I think that’s the key, that’s what makes Less work. Arthur Less is so lovelorn, so self-pitying, such a sad sack, that Less would not have worked if told from his own point of view. It would have been morose and miserable and flat-out annoying. As it stands, though, Less is a very literary comedy. Even when the humour is slapstick, Greer manages to write it in a clever and challenging way. This is a book that could work equally well as a beach read and a citation in your thesis.

That was the whole idea, of course. Greer said that he began writing Less as a “very serious” novel, but he soon figured out that the only way to write about the miseries of an ageing, gay writer (as an ageing, gay writer) was to make it funny. This is a realisation that Arthur Less has himself in the book, too. I really dig this determinedly self-deprecating approach. It lets Greer parody all the priviliged-white-American-abroad tropes, to my great delight.

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018, Less also spent an unbelievably long time on the New York Times Best Seller List, and even won the 2019 Australian Book Industry Award for International Book Of The Year. All of this is to say that Less is both a critical and a popular success. Greer has certainly won a fan in me! I highly recommend this book, particularly to fans of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, or anyone in need of a chuckle and a little heart-warming.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Less:

  • “I was expecting more.” – Peter Boyd
  • “My whole book club did not like this book. I liked the writing about the different cities.” – Elaine M. Bloom
  • “I never write book reviews but good god, what a complete dump of a book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I read it. It was a book.” – M D White
  • “Some humorous lines, but not worthy of such praise. I really don’t get all the accolades… guess I am less understanding.” – Nance T Lodge
  • “Less less less less less less less
    Lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser lesser
    Least least least least least least least.” – Mike F.
  • “I am an avid reader . I usually love Pulitzer Prize winners. I did not think this book was very special.” – Maria G. Fitzpatrick
  • “Love the ending. [SPOILER ALERT] it’s basically the gay, prose version of Taylor Swift’s “How You Get The Girl”” – Joyce Reneau


Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

I had a really tough time getting my hands on a copy of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I ended up having my local independent bookstore special-order a copy from the UK for me, which makes it officially the furthest I’ve ever gone to track down a book for this project. That said, I can kind of see why, having read it, there aren’t many copies in circulation. The premise and the writing are… shall we say, esoteric. But Sarah Waters, who wrote the introduction to this edition, insists that Townsend Warner is “certainly one of the most shamefully under-read great British authors of the past hundred years”. How could I resist?

Lolly Willowes (alternative title: The Loving Huntsman) was Townsend Warner’s first novel. It was published in 1926 and billed as an “early feminist classic”. Even by today’s standards, it’s a leftie book. The author was open and frank about her commitment to radical left-wing causes (like, y’know, social justice and women having rights and stuff like that). She gets an A+ from me for the way she translated her political leanings into a plot. Lolly Willowes is the story of a mild-mannered spinster who moves to a country village to escape her pain-in-the-arse family; there, she turns to witchcraft, and sells her soul to the devil.

Now, don’t even TELL me you don’t find that at least a LITTLE bit relatable! I mean, who among us hasn’t, on some occasion, been just slightly tempted…

Meet our titular protagonist: Laura Willowes, “Lolly” being the affectionate nickname given by her family (one she secretly hates). After her father dies, she moves to London to live with her brother Henry and his family. Her own home (Lady Place – Townsend wasn’t mucking around with these feminist symbols) is passed to her other brother, James… only James kicks the bucket pretty quickly thereafter, too, and the house ends up rented out to strangers. There’s a lot of family politicking going on for the first half of the novel. The part I found most infuriating was the fact that they owned a brewery – i.e., they were living the dream! – but they just kind of let it fall by the wayside. I mean, come on! Where are their priorities?

The most important thing to bear in mind if you’re thinking of picking up Lolly Willowes is that there’s very little dialogue. Almost all of this plays out in the narrative. So, if you’re one of the “show, don’t tell” types, this is definitely not the book for you.



Anyway, meek and mild Lolly spends twenty-odd years just kind of… hanging around. She never marries, and never causes any trouble. She just raises Henry’s kids for him, and (understandably) gets pretty bored.

Once she finally decides she’s had a gut-full, she declares her intention to move to the charmingly-named town of Great Mop. If she were a man, she would’ve just married a twenty-two-year-old blonde and bought it a sports car and called it a day, but here we are. She then learns that Henry, who has been “managing her affairs” while she lived under his roof, has lost all her money. He tells her this in the hopes that she’ll stick around (she is, after all, his unpaid househould help), but she gives not a single fuck. She forges ahead with her move to Great Mop, and figures she’ll just live more frugally than she originally envisaged. Lolly Willowes is meek and mild no more, y’all!

Once she’s settled, she gets really into hiking. Lolly becomes obsessed with the views of the chalk hills and the beech wood trees. At times, these passages read more like nature writing than fictional prose. When she’s not traipsing around the woods, she makes friends with her landlady, hangs out with a poultry farmer, and tries not to wonder about the weird noises she hears at night…

Then, terrible news: Titus, her nephew (son of James, the brother who died), takes it into his head that he should move to Great Mop, too. He’s going to live with Lolly and “be a writer”. She doesn’t even get a chance to object; he just storms in and takes over. That means she’s back to a life of darning someone else’s socks and cooking someone else’s meals and all the other crap that comes with a privileged white man’s presence. Hmph!

Lolly has really had it now, guys. On her next wilderness walk, she calls upon Satan – yes, the same one – to ask that he release her from the shackles of domestic duty. For freminism!

When she gets home, she finds a kitten (aw!), whom she believes to be Satan’s emissary (oh…). She names him Vinegar, and adopts him as her familiar. That’s when shit gets witchy. I mean, it’s unlike any witchcraft with which I’m familiar, but that’s not saying much. And it’s around this time that Lolly starts calling Satan her “loving huntsman” (thus, the subtitle).

To seal the deal with the devil, Lolly tags along with her landlady to a local Witches’ Sabbath, attended by just about every woman in Great Mop. Apparently, this “normal” town is populated exclusively by women who want to dismantle the patriarchy. They work some magic, and that’s when things start going south for Titus. He’s plagued by all kinds of bad luck: his milk always curdles, he falls into a wasp’s nest, the usual. He winds up proposing to the woman who treats his wasp stings, and they fuck off back to London together to escape the curse – good riddance!

Lolly is relieved of her duties, and so glad to be finally free of them. She calls up her new buddy Satan, and (this is my favourite bit) tells him that women are like sticks of dynamite, ready to explode. They’re all witches, apparently, “even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!” (PREACH). The book ends with Lolly making peace with the fact that she sold her soul to the devil for a bit of peace and quiet. She’s okay with it.



Now, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t know dick about witchcraft… but from what I do know, I’m fairly confident that most of the women who identify as witches would be horrified/disgusted/angry at yet another literary representation linking their identities to “Satan”. Various witchcraft-based religions are ancient and have nothing to do with Christian representations of good, evil, or anything else. So, let’s just make that clear: this isn’t an accurate representation of real-world witchcraft, and to claim it is would be highly offensive.

That said, I don’t think Lolly Willowes was meant to be representative or accurate. Townsend Warner was Doing A Thing(TM). I think she deliberately invoked the image of Satan to symbolically fuck with the power structures (including religion) that oppress women. This is a fantastical novel in many ways, and a satirical one; I don’t think Townsend Warner wanted to sign on to represent any particular group. She just wanted to shit on whiny entitled white dudes, sucks to be them.

Lolly Willowes was published a year after Mrs Dalloway, and it’s got a very similar vibe: the search for a room of one’s own, women’s post-war liberation, the roles and responsibilities of widows and spinsters… If you liked Woolf, chances are you’ll dig this one, too.

Upon publication, Lolly Willowes was critically acclaimed in the UK, but didn’t make much of a splash with the general public. Townsend Warner eventually found her audience in the US, where Lolly Willowes was selected as the inaugural Book Of The Month title. Her affinity with American readers continued until her death; she was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and other American publications.

So, what did I think of it? Well, it’s hard to say. If I was asked for a brief description of Lolly Willowes, I think all I could say is “it’s weird”. Good weird, yes, but weird nonetheless. It’s a book of interest, a book worth reading, but not a gripping page-turner for most people. It’s unlikely to show up in any “best classic books” lists, but I’m glad I read it all the same.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lolly Willowes:

  • “Lolly moves in with relatives. Lolly seeks independence. Lolly gets mixed up with the Devil. I must have missed something.” – J. Rodeck
  • “Help. I did not order this. Have been hacked!” – Martha R Zimiles

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Ever wonder why I’m constantly buying secondhand books? Aside from being thrifty, it’s because they have the most amazing and hilarious charm that I just don’t get when I click “buy now” on the latest brand-new mass-market paperback. Inside this well-worn copy of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, for instance, I found a hand-written business card, complete with name, phone number, email address, and the (one would assume unofficial) job title of “complete and utter wanker”. Can’t beat that!

Evelyn Waugh was the second son of Arthur Waugh, celebrated publisher-slash-literary critic, and also the brother of Alec Waugh, the popular novelist. I can only imagine the weight of family expectation on his shoulders, and the snippy conversations they had over Christmas dinners! Luckily, it would seem that he managed to out-write and out-last them both. He’s better known for his book Brideshead Revisited, but somehow Scoop, his satirical novel about sensationalist journalism and foreign correspondents, is the one that ended up on my reading list.

It’s kind of funny, really, to read a book about journalists and newspapers written before the News Of The World scandal. Scoop reads like a time capsule of the by-gone “heyday” of newspaper journalism. The protagonist is the humble (read: poor) William Boot, who lives on the very-very outskirts of London and regularly contributes over-written nature columns to The Daily Beast, a newspaper owned by the terrifying and powerful Lord Copper. Boot’s life is turned upside-down when Lord Copper mistakes him for a fashionable member of the literati (John Courtney Boot, a distant cousin), and bullies him into accepting a post as a foreign correspondent.

Not-very-important note, but something I can’t help mentioning: Waugh seemed to be unusually fond of the word “preternatural”. I had to look it up, to make sure it didn’t have some nuanced meaning or significant etymology, he used it so often! Twice in the first twenty pages alone, for crying out loud! In different contexts! I still can’t work out what he was playing at…



Anyway, Boot is sent to the fictional East African state of Ishmaelia, where Lord Copper believes there to be “a very promising little war” underway. Boot’s directive is to give the conflict “fullest publicity”. (Yes, the whole way through, the parallels to Murdoch’s real-life media empire are eerie.) Boot has no idea what the fuck he is doing, of course, but despite his total incompetence, he manages to get the biggest “scoop” of the year (thus, the title). He heads home a journalistic hero.

When he gets back to London, however, there’s another case of mistaken identity. All the credit for his work goes to John Courtney Boot, the writer for whom Lord Copper had mistaken him initially. Our hero is actually relieved by that turn of events, and he goes back to his humble life of genteel poverty, writing nature columns and caring for his crazy family. Everyone goes home happy, The End.

Now, let’s not overlook this: there are a lot of ugly racist and sexist overtones in this story (as there are in just about every book of that era). Privileged white people travel to East Africa to make a spectacle of a war between people of colour, in order to sell newspapers. That’s pretty gross on its face, but Waugh seemed to have a certain level of self-awareness about the implications. In fact, I’d say he used Scoop as an opportunity to punch up. The East Africans weren’t the butt of the joke: the ridiculous arrogant journalists and newspaper moguls were. And Waugh wasn’t subtle: the two major newspaper competitors were called the “Brute” and the “Beast”, so there’s no mistaking his true feelings. (Oh, and his idea of the lowliest employee at a newspaper was the book reviewer – ha!)



Waugh’s blatant disregard for the opinions of the powerful elites he lampooned is all the more surprising given that Scoop is actually based on his real-life experience working for the Daily Mail. He was sent to cover Mussolini’s role in the Second Italo-Abyssian war. Lord Copper is widely believed to be an amalgamation of characteristics of the real-life Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, a combination that produced a character so frightening his underlings could only say “Definitely, Lord Copper” and “Up to a point, Lord Copper” (which is how the whole mistaken identity issue arises to begin with). Waugh’s Scoop is the very clear and unambiguous predecessor to The Devil Wears Prada.

The main point Waugh was trying to make, it would seem, is that even if there isn’t anything newsworthy going on, the appearance of world media – desperate to please their editors and media owners back home – will, in itself, create the news. This sounds like an obvious statement of fact today, but I’d imagine at the time it was revelatory. Waugh appears to have foreseen the proliferation of fake news and alternative facts. It’s a testament to his searing insight that Scoop maintains its relevance to the present day. Even as journalism dies a quiet death and the newspaper work room becomes a quaint relic and the news increasingly relocates to online formats with instantaneous delivery systems, Waugh’s wit and insight remains almost as sharp as it did at the time of publication.

As for the writing itself, as much as I admire Waugh’s incredible foresight in his premise and plot, it wasn’t mind-blowing. It really evoked The Thirty-Nine Steps for me, actually – a grumpy Pommy bloke, through a series of coincidences, gets thrust into a situation that’s beyond him and he has to rise to the challenge. It forms a kind of bridge between The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Sun Also Rises. I liked it well enough; it wasn’t fantastic prose, but it wasn’t a chore to finish, and I’m glad to have read it. If you’ve got an interest in media, how it works and how it affects our understanding of the world, this would be great background reading for you – give it a go and let me know what you think.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Scoop:

  • “Somewhere between William Boyd’s “A Good Man in Africa” and Graham Greene’s “Our Man In Havana” you will find Waugh’s “Scoop”, which should have been titled “Our Gardening Columnist in Ishmaelia”….” – Pop Bop
  • “I think some people would find this very funny. I didn’t.” – ellen sf
  • “Book was brand new and I loved the size of the font! Extra easy to leave nits in the margin (because I am studying the novel for a class)” – Ebony Cannon
  • “She’s a he. Pronounced EEEEE-velyn.” – Amazon Customer
  • “‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.’ That must babe good style.” – A customer


The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne

When you pick up a book called The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, you figure that you’re going to read all about… well, the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, who was probably a top bloke. But you’d be wrong! Laurence Sterne has some fun in store for us, my friend…

This book was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759 and the remaining seven coming out over the following years. In the mid-1760s, a lot of imitators and copycats came out of the woodwork, trying to cash in on Sterne’s success, so he personally signed every single copy of the Volume 5 print-run, ensuring that his loyal readers knew they were getting the real deal. (Turns out John Green wasn’t the first to do it after all, ha!)

The introductory essays in this edition use a lot of words to say… well, not much, really. They’re probably super-interesting to English majors and people who have spent their lives in academia, but for the uninitiated they’re pretty impenetrable. You probably won’t get much out of them unless you’re already very familiar with Sterne in his contemporaries; otherwise, you’re probably better off perusing Laurence Sterne’s Wikipedia page instead, or reading this Very Good Review from KUWTP 😉

So, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, as we’ve established, purports to be an auto-biography of its titular character, but that’s a fucking joke. Ha ha bloody ha, Sterne! You figure out pretty quickly that Tristram’s defining characteristic is that he can’t tell a straightforward story, and he goes off in tangents that make Mrs Dalloway feel like a walk in the park.



This makes for a very slow read. By the half-way point, about ten chapters in to Volume IV, Tristram had just been born and named. That’s as far as we get into the “life and opinions” of Tristram Shandy over the course of 260 pages. Yawn! The narrator spends most of that time prattling on about his father (Walter), his mother (unnamed, sexist!), his Uncle Toby, and the servant Trim. He makes a whole lot of references to Shakespeare (the local parson is named Yorick, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough), and he also borrows heavily from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. There really isn’t all that much life-and-opinion-ing at all, to be honest, even once Tristram’s life actually begins.

I’m not ashamed to admit I gave up on the footnotes. There were just SO MANY! I got carpal tunnel from flicking back and forth every time one appeared. I took to just skimming over them all before I began each chapter, figuring I’d catch enough give me the context I needed… but by the last few volumes, I’d given up on them altogether. Seriously, there were footnotes within footnotes! It was footnote-ception! It reminded me a lot of The Divine Comedy in that regard.

It also reminded me a lot of Moby Dick, in terms of pacing: slow, with bursts of action, and lots of digression. If you enjoyed Moby Dick stylistically (not just for the swashbuckling), then I’d recommend The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to you in a heartbeat. Most of the “action” is domestic in nature, often centering on arguments between the cynical Papa Walter and the optimistic (read: naive) Uncle Toby.

But those small moments of interest are separated by Tristram’s elongated, bloated musings on everything: from sex, to insults, to the influence of one’s name, to the shape of one’s nose, to the science of obstetrics, to strategic siege warfare, to the state of philosophical thought… in the end, the only actual events Sterne describes are Tristram’s birth (where his nose was crushed by the doctor’s forceps, to his father’s great dismay – I think “nose” might have been a euphemism for “cock”), a couple of other minor accidents he had growing up, and an adolescent trip to France. The rest of the book is all miscellaneous ramblings.



As ever, when it comes to lofty classics, I’m sure I’m missing the point. Over the last hundred years or so, Sterne has been lauded for his “masterpiece of bawdy humour and rich satire”, and “gloriously disordered narrative”. Apparently, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is “a joyful celebration of endless possibilities of the art of fiction [and] also a wry demonstration of its limitations”. I’m sure all that is true… but I’m not the only one who didn’t get it. His contemporaries and the literary critics of his time did not like his shit at all. They slammed him for his “obscenity”, to the point of defaming him with ongoing widespread accusations of “mindless plagiarism” and “artistic dishonesty”. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was pretty popular with the hoi-polloi, but it was a long time (literally centuries) before academics and critics accepted him. I’ve also seen this book called “the first post-modernist novel”, which (given it was published in the 1700s) begs the question: can a book even be post-modern if modernism hasn’t happened yet? No one can give me a straight answer on this, which leads me to believe they are all talking out of their arses.

In sum, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is not for beginners. If you’re new to the classics, or even to 18th century literature specifically, this is not the one you want to start with. Gulliver’s Travels is from the same period, but infinitely more readable. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a Serious Book For Grown Ups(TM), best read and understood by people who have devoted their lives to studying English literature and history. If you like to read for fun, if you like getting lost in a good page-turner, heck – if you like it when the narrator sticks to the damn point: this is not the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

  • “I had no idea what the author was talking about. I just read it to make me fall asleep whenever I had insomnia.” – Loretta
  • “It’s probably great, but I didn’t notice it was in German, a language I don’t know.” – Marie Brack
  • “What in the hell was this lunatic yammering about for all those 650 pages? What is the deal with his obsession with noses, penises, and hobby-horses, hobby-horses, hobby-horses? Why does anyone consider it amusing when a writer keeps telling you he’s going to get somewhere, but never does? Why is it entertaining at all to have blank chapters? Why is that cute? Why is that interesting? Who finds this funny? Who finds anything funny here at all? Why does this book of endless, mindless prattle, blabber, and piffle tickle anyone at all? Who finds digression to be enjoyable in literature? You? Why? Why? Tell me!

    

I checked the ratings on Goodreads. This is what it showed:



    5 stars: 33%, 4901

    4 stars: 28%, 4064

    3 stars: 22%, 3268

    2 stars: 9%, 1414
    
1 star: 5%, 848



    Meaning: 95% of these readers are flock-following, digression-loving, hobby-horse riding loonies who have swallowed the Kool-aid. There is nothing here but vacuous thundergunk. Pure, putrid unentertaining garbage. If I would have laughed once – just once – during the reading of this book, I would have given it a whole extra star, but it couldn’t even do that. I give him one star for spelling Tristram’s name right, and even then, it’s a made-up name anyway, so I may have been hoodwinked as well.” – Martin M. Bodek

  • “English humour without a plot line” – Amazon Customer


The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Well, I don’t know about you, but after last week’s adventure on The Narrow Road To The Deep North, I needed something a little more light-hearted. When I tell people I’m reading my way through a list of classic and popular books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is their number one suggestion/request. I couldn’t get to it for ages: it was super difficult to find a copy in my usual secondhand bookstores. One staffer literally laughed when I asked if they had it; every copy they get (and they don’t get many, because no one wants to part with it) is snapped up immediately. So, you’d better believe that I pounced as soon as I saw one! Even though I’m not a sci-fi reader, this one is such a cultural icon – and so many people recommend it so highly – I was really excited.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy actually began as a radio series, first broadcast on 8 March 1978. Adams didn’t adapt it to book form until the following year, but it’s a good thing he did because it sold 250,000 copies in just the first three months after its release. What makes my secondhand store find even more of a miracle is that this is one of those editions! The very first published by Pan Books back in 1979. Can you believe it?? You’ll pry this baby out of my cold dead hands! And I tell you this not just to show off: it’s actually quite important to know which edition someone is reviewing, because Adams made substantial re-writes between each print run. Even though the basic plot points remain the same, the editions often contradict each other with changes to character, dialogue, and so forth. So, anything that follows might be a little different to what you recall if you read a later edition, don’t @ me 😉

Right from the get-go, Adams is funny. His author bio says things like: “He has also worked at various times as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, bodyguard, radio producer, and script editor of Doctor Who. He is not married, has no children, and does not live in Surrey.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that he’s a pretty kooky guy, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is a pretty kooky book. Adams claimed that the concept and title were inspired by a bender. He was hitchhiking around Europe and one night, lying drunk in a field (if I had a dollar), he got to thinking about his mate’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe and mused that there should be a version written for the galaxy. And he was onto something, believe it or not: his drunken idea turned into an international multi-media phenomenon.



The story begins with THE END OF THE WORLD… literally. A Vogon constructor fleet vaporises our dear planet to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Luckily, an unassuming English gent – our protagonist, Arthur Dent – is rescued by Ford Prefect, the humanoid alien freelancer who’s writing a guide to Earth for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Ford drags Arthur up and away, and they hitch a ride on a passing Vogon space craft. And so, their misadventures begin…

As I’m sure you can tell already, I did a good job of picking a light read to counteract my last one. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is silly, it’s fun, and it’s quite satirical in tone (it reminded me of Catch-22 in that way, actually). Arthur Dent explores the galaxy with his alien buddy, and they make a few friends along the way: Trillian (another human that had escaped Earth prior to its destruction), Zaphod Beeblebrox (the two-headed President of the Galaxy), and Marvin (the Paranoid Android). My favourite part was the off-hand mention of a planet where all the lost biro pens go: I think I could live there quite happily…



The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy ended up being the first in a series of five books that Adams ironically called a “trilogy”. After it, there’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, The Universe and Everything (1982), So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). There was also a sixth book in the series, called And Another Thing…, published in 2009 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the novel’s release (but being that Adams is, well, dead, it was written by Irish author Eoin Colfer).

The series has inspired countless multi-media adaptations, beyond even the original radio broadcasts: films, television shows, music, graphic novels… Adams’ story is so pervasive in pop culture that when Elon Musk launched his Tesla Roadster in Feburary 2018, he emblazoned the dashboard with DON’T PANIC, and packed a towel and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy on board (all of which are in-jokes from the book).

So, yes, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is perfect if you’re in need of a chuckle, as I was. I’m not sure I’d read it again, I didn’t love it that much, but I’m glad I gave it a go. It made me think a lot about how sci-fi is often maligned, and how varied the genre can actually be, unbeknownst to the readers that look down their noses at it. Most of all, though, I’m glad I finally understand the meaning of a cryptic note a former colleague left for me when he moved on to a new job; it said “So long, and thanks for all the fish!”. I puzzled over that for years, but now – thanks to my Keeping Up With The Penguins project – it finally makes sense! If you don’t get it, you’ll just have to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or die wondering 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

  • “felt a lost of i. q.” – albe
  • “A fun random adventure in an absurd future past about space Wikipedia. It was the most random book I’ve ever read but it was short and entertaining.” – Seth
  • “The words soar and scintillate, in exactly the way a brick doesn’t. Douglas, you left us too soon. Farewell.” – Mark A. Wilson
  • “Adventurous spirit of Star Trek meets scientific imagination of Harry Potter meets hilarity of Sharknado. At the end of the day, Douglas Adams is a genius and it’s not hard to see how this novel inspired a young Elon Musk!” – Pearl Ibarra
  • “Ordered by accident. Enjoyed Marvin the robots escapades though. When he disappeared I lost interest.” – Rich Bowen
  • “I know it is a “classic” and I migh have enjoyed it if I had been smoking weed but I don’t and I didn’t” – Headed South
  • “Among the worst of books. Imagine if Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Pratchett had a love child, and then that love child had no talent.” – Dr Funk
  • “I made it a quarter of the way through the book when I had to put it down. The paragraph in particular referenced a million gallon vat of custard and i couldn’t get past it. Even in science fiction, a million gallon vat of custard just isn’t believable. Belief cannot be suspended with this book.” – Lindsey Mertz


Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but let the booklover who is without sin cast the first stone. This cover of Cold Comfort Farm looked really cute when I first pulled it from the shelf, but when I examined it closely… I didn’t get it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It seemed to be a series of in-joke caricatures that made no sense to me whatsoever. Then, the introduction kept calling Cold Comfort Farm a “comic” novel and it included all of these excerpts… but none of them were funny? Apparently, Gibbons sought to parody the “rural” genre, which I’ve never heard of, let alone read. None of this boded well.

Now, I’m going to assume that most of you have never heard of Cold Comfort Farm either. I certainly hadn’t before I pulled together my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. Stella Gibbons seems to be the poor cousin of early 20th century authors, ignored by academics and readers alike. Cold Comfort Farm was her first book, published in 1932, and she went on to write 23 additional novels in her lifetime but this is the only one that remains in print. Speaking of her first book, she once said:

“[Cold Comfort Farm is like] some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore; skipping about, and reminding you of the days when you were a bright young thing. To him, and his admirers, you have never grown up… The old monster has also overlain all my other books, and if I do happen to glance at him occasionally, I am filled by an incredulous wonder that I could have once been so light-hearted.”

Stella Gibbons

So, yeah, she was pretty over it, like a would-be rockstar that only ever had one hit song and was forced to play it ad infinitim for the rest of her career. Most people who have heard of Stella Gibbons don’t even realise that she wrote anything else.

Even in her own time, she wasn’t all that popular with her contemporaries. Virginia Woolf once wrote to Elizabeth Bowen, after Gibbons won a literary prize:

“I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”

Virginia Woolf

BURN! But the disdain was mutual: Gibbons refused to join literary circles and cliques, knowing full well that she wasn’t making any friends for herself when she satirised their work. She just didn’t give a fuck at all, tbh. As per the introduction:

“To satirise the sexual values of DH Lawrence at this time was to outlaw oneself deliberately from any intellectual elite. Intellectuals were enslaved to Lawrence – especially the men, of course, for whom his gospel of sexual freedom chimed very nicely with what they actually wanted to do.”

I think you can see what I’m working up to here: Stella Gibbons was a bad bitch who called ’em how she saw ’em, and she wrote Cold Comfort Farm with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. Spoiler alert: it is actually funny! I’d say it lands somewhere between Jane Austen and Fawlty Towers. I really enjoyed it, in spite of myself (and its cover – maybe there is something to that whole “not-judging-a-book” business after all…).



To the story: it is set in some unspecified future time period, shortly after “the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of 1946” (bear in mind that Gibbons was writing in the early 1930s, and had no idea what was coming world-war-wise). The book’s heroine, Flora Poste, finishes school only to find herself suddenly orphaned at the ripe old age of 19 years. She has no means of supporting herself, being as she says “possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living”. What’s a girl to do? Find a rich relative and mooch off them until she can secure a satisfactory husband, of course!

“No limits are set, either by society or one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives.”

Flora Poste (Cold Comfort Farm)

She turns down offers of bed and board from several well-to-do cousins, for one reason or another, and eventually settles on “visiting” her (very) distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm (some way outside the fictional village Howling, Sussex). They agree to take her in so that they may atone for some unspecified wrong they wrought upon her father years ago. On the farm lives the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, the whole extended family of the Starkadders, and their stuff – and they are all BAT. SHIT. CRAZY.

Flora, not one to muck around, sets about civilising them all and teaching them about sponges and contraception and other modern conveniences that would make their farm less of a hell-hole (and them a little more… presentable). She’s basically Mary Poppins, bringing metropolitan values and comforts to the sticks.

It’s not a straightforward story to read, for a few reasons. The story goes in bursts and starts, takes weird turns, and never really provides a satisfactory ending. In fact, it’s kind of like someone telling you their dream at times (but a funny one, not one that bores the pants off you). You also have to translate some of the fake idioms and slang, which Gibbons used to parody the novelists that used phonics to portray accents and local dialects (looking at you, DH Lawrence!). An example: “mollocking” is Seth’s favourite activity, and Gibbons never tells you exactly what it is… except that it always seems to precede the pregnancy of a maid (HA!). But don’t let the threat of made-up vernacular put you off: it’s still infinitely more readable than the modernist novels published around the same time (*cough*Mrs Dalloway*cough*).



Gibbons tried to capitalise on what little momentum Cold Comfort Farm generated; she published a collection of short stories – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1940, and then another – Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1949, but neither of them made much of a ripple. Still, the original novel continued on its merry way, and it has been adapted for the screen several times (including twice by the BBC). It hasn’t shaken the world: I’d probably call it one of the best classics you’ve never heard of.

So, yes, I must concede, my initial impressions were totally inaccurate. Cold Comfort Farm is fucking hilarious. It’s clever and sarcastic and satirical, but I’m hesitant to provide you with many (any!) excerpts to back up my claims, because the introduction tried to do that and failed so spectacularly. Cold Comfort Farm’s humour is entirely contextual; the only way to really “get it” is to read the book in its entirety. I completely agree, however, with the handful of fans out there who say that it is criminally underrated (much like one of my other favourites), and my not having encountered it before now seems an absolute travesty. It’s definitely worth a look if you can find a copy – tell a friend!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

  • “I just am not in the mood for so much drama” – Ursula Guevara
  • “Bored me to tears…too long and meaningless. A young girl with nothing to do with her life takes over others. There’s a secret in her family’s past that is not revealed by the end of the story” – Monica
  • “Not that great” – margaret murphy
  • “If you are a fan of Cold Comfort Farm, you will like this book.” – Ms Lauri Gillam
  • “Sadly, no explicit sex, but terrific humor” – Francis Assaf


Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

If I was all hung up on being technically correct (pfft, you guys wouldn’t believe it was me), this post would be called “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver”. That was the title Jonathan Swift chose for this novel, published under a pseudonym in 1729. He chose to use a pen name because his work was full of political commentary and satire, and his real name was closely associated with the Tories (who had fallen into disrepute, imagine that). He said he wrote the world to “vex the world rather than divert it”. But as time went on, more and more people referred to it as simply Gulliver’s Travels, and here we are.

Gulliver’s Travels reads like the travel blog of a bloke who gallivanted around the world in the 1700s, when atlases were woefully incomplete. The story kicks off with his first voyage, which he dates as occurring in 1699. His ship is wrecked (oh, yeah, you need to know right from the outset that Gulliver is super unlucky), and he washes ashore in the strange land of Lilliput. It is inhabited by a race of tiny people, all less than six inches tall. At first, they’re totally cool with this random giant (Gulliver) showing up in their ‘hood, but they’re (understandably) fucking terrified of the power he wields over them with his size. He learns that they’re kind of loopy, on the whole, and they focus on trivial things. Prime example: they’ve long been engaged in out-and-out military warfare with a neighbouring society of equally-tiny people, because they crack open their eggs at the opposite end. All things considered, Gulliver doesn’t really fit in with the Lilliputians, and he gets the fuck out of Dodge.

Not one to be put-off (oh, yeah, old mate Gulliver is also quite slow on the uptake), he sets out on another voyage in 1702. This time, his fellow sailors abandon him on a peninsula in North Africa. This is pretty much Opposite Land after Lilliput, because the farmer that finds him is 72ft tall and the grass seems as high as the trees back in England. Gulliver – now teeny-tiny, in relative terms – is treated as a side-show curiosity by the giants that take him in, and he is eventually sold as a pet to the Queen of their realm. After a few more adventures (including – and I’m not kidding, I swear – a fight with a gargantuan wasp and an escapade with a monkey), the box that Gulliver’s been living in is picked up by a seagull and dropped out to sea. There, he is rescued by some sailors, regular-sized ones, who return him safely to England once more.


Remember how I said Gulliver is slow on the uptake? Yeah, well, his travels don’t end there. In 1706, he sets off again, and this time his ship is attacked by pirates. This dude must’ve been cursed! He finds himself marooned on a rocky island near India, in a kingdom of people obsessed with music, mathematics, and astronomy… in theory. They’re all book-smart, he quickly finds, but not so good with the practical living. He helpfully points out to the reader that they taught him an important lesson about the blind pursuit of science and art without practical results (and, yes, this was Swift making one of those political points of his about bureaucracy, and the Royal Society’s controversial experiments), before making his way home…

… but not for long. Full of impractical wanderlust-bravado, Gulliver heads back out, this time as the captain of a ship, only to have his crew commit mutiny and abandon him on the first lump of sand they find. That’s where he finds a race of deformed savage human-esque creatures (the “Yahoos”), and he’s rescued by a race of talking horses (the “Houyhnhnms”). I don’t think I need to point out the metaphor here, because Swift hits you over the head with it repeatedly until the end of the book. It’s basically Planet of the Apes, but with horsies. Gulliver lives among the Houyhnhnms (even though they’re highly suspicious of him, with the resemblance he bears to their Yahoo mortal enemies, of course), and he hangs around for a long, long time. Eventually, they kick him out for being too Yahoo-y, and he gets home only to find that he is now repulsed by his own kind. He lives out the rest of his days in his stables, ignoring his wife and chit-chatting to the horses about life and philosophy and whatever. The end.

By now, a lot of the structural elements of Gulliver’s Travels have become stock-standard, but at the time they were downright revolutionary. There’s a clear downward spiral, as the causes of Gulliver’s “travels” become more and more malignant: shipwrecked, abandoned, boarded by pirates, mutinied by his own crew. As that plays out, Gulliver himself devolves from a cheery optimist to a pompous misanthrope. And each section of the novel forms the equal but opposite of the previous part: the Lilliputians are tiny, but then Gulliver finds himself in a society where he’s the tiny one, and so on and so forth.


I can’t say I liked Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because I got increasingly pissed off at the fact that Gulliver seems to completely forget all about his wife and family. Mrs Gulliver is the most sympathetic character in the whole story, no shit. Even though he comes home in the end, he’s spent too much time on Planet Of The Horses and he decides that she’s an “odious Yahoo”, and refuses to have anything to do with her. Sometimes, if he feels particularly benevolent, he’ll “permit” her to sit with him at dinner, as long as she stays at the opposite end of the table and he can stuff his nose with “rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves” to mask her human stench. Oh, and he commands her to answer any questions with the “utmost brevity”, so he doesn’t have to put up with her yammering on. What a guy!

I wondered why more of the book didn’t feel familiar, because I’d watched a film adaptation (on VHS! remember those?) about a hundred times when I was a kid. Then, I looked it up and worked out that it only covered two of the “several remote nations” to which Gulliver travelled. Apparently a lot of film adaptations do that, because the first couple of “travels” are the easiest to film and communicate on-screen; plus, they’re the most kid-friendly, and Gulliver’s Travels is widely regarded as a children’s book, even though there’s a lot of political commentary and allegory behind the childish imagery. I suppose that makes it an old-timey version of Shrek, really.

Don’t be fooled, though: Gulliver’s Travels has had a considerable impact on literature, and indeed the English language on the whole. In this book, we can find the origins of science fiction, and the structure of the modern novel. Even the term “yahoo” (meaning “a rude, noisy, or violent person” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is drawn from Swift’s work – another English word that has its roots in classic literature! It’s just a shame I couldn’t enjoy it properly because the main character was such an unremitting arsehole.



My favourite part (not that I felt spoiled for choice) was where Gulliver meets a King, who moonlights as psychic medium John Edward. He can recall people from the dead, but only for 24 hours at a time, and only once every three months. Gulliver talks him into bringing back Aristotle, assorted Roman emperors, dead Kings, and so forth. There’s a really touching passage where he laments the fact that history is written by the victors, and all these dickheads (who he’d been taught all his life were “great men”) were basically the Donald Trumps of their day. All the people who’d stood up to them and fought the good fight had either been forgotten or had their names dragged through the mud. Gulliver declares that he’s fed up with fake news, and he’s calling bullshit on it all – surprisingly poignant, eh?

My tl;dr summary of Gulliver’s Travels: Gulliver leaves his wife and kids at home to gallivant around the world, four times over, even though he constantly meets with disaster and winds up a prisoner in some foreign land or another. He becomes such a twisted misanthrope that he gives up on humanity and lives out his days ankle-deep in horse shit. Sure, the academics will say that it’s an ever-relevant critique of corruption and religion and government… but I can’t get past the wife-abandonment. Gulliver pretty much got what he deserved, is what I’m saying, and his wife could have done so much better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gulliver’s Travels:

  • “This was the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. My whole family hates it too. Honestly, I could barley read it for 10 minutes without it putting me to sleep from Gulliver dragging on about garbage no one cares about. I would rather drink a gallon of mayonnaise then read this, actually I would BATHE in mayonnaise for a MONTh then read this book. And don’t even think about saying “oh I bet its not THAT bad,” because it IS THAT BAD! I wish I didn’t have to read this book for my class, but by the time i’m done, I might as well burn the book.” – AmazonShoper
  • “Useless as a book.” – Flordelis
  • “Sucked.” – Morgan
  • “Mostly good stories.” – John H. Long

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

The blurb on the back of this edition of Portnoy’s Complaint proclaims thus: “Portnoy’s Complaint must surely be the funniest book about sex ever written”. It was released to a storm of controversy, the pearl-clutchers taking issue with his explicit descriptions of sex and masturbation using various props (including, believe it or not, a piece of liver that the protagonist’s mother later cooked and served for dinner). All of this is to say that Portnoy’s Complaint sounded very, very promising to me. 😉

This is Philip Roth’s trademark novel, the “humorous monologue of a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, focusing on themes of sexual desire and frustration, full to the brim with comedic prose and self-conscious literariness. I actually started reading it the very same week that Philip Roth died, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. Portnoy’s Complaint turned Roth into a literary celebrity of sorts, and he went on to win pretty much every major award there is. I actually read a New York Times article in the weeks following his death that described how he would wait by the phone before each Nobel announcement, waiting on the call to say he’d finally won… and his devastation every time the phone didn’t ring. It was an odd combination of endearing and heartbreaking.

His literary brilliance and desperation for critical acclaim aside, I’m not sure Roth was all that endearing as a person. I read, for instance, that his progress in writing Portnoy’s Complaint was very slow – he claimed to be suffering from writer’s block, which he attributed to his ex-wife and the “unpleasant notion” that any royalties earned from the novel would have to be shared with her. As if that weren’t gross enough, she was killed in a car accident in 1968, and Roth’s writer’s block magically lifted. Immediately after the funeral, he made a beeline for a writer’s retreat, and promptly completed the manuscript. Ew. That story makes me want to shake him and shout “STOP BLAMING WOMEN FOR YOUR BULLSHIT!”… but I digress.



Portnoy’s Complaint, the very one that gave the book its title, Roth defines as “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”. Surely, we can all relate 😉 The book is presented as a monologue as told to a psychiatrist, and I think it was very clever on Roth’s part to position it that way. Had it read as a simple conversation with a generic “reader”, or a diary entry or some such nonsense, Portnoy’s pontificating would have been much harder to stomach. In Roth’s own words, the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by “the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation” which would “permit [him] to bring into [his] fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that […] in another fictional environment would have struck [him] as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene.” So, yeah. The dude knew what he was doing.

The blurb promises, as I mentioned, a comedy about sex – and yes, there is a lot of wanking (which is, in itself, very funny), but mostly Portnoy’s Complaint is about the narrator’s parents and growing up Jewish in mid-20th century America. The monologue darts back and forth through the various stages of his life, describing scenes and experiences that all relate back to his “complaint” (as it were): his inability to let loose and properly enjoy sex, no matter how creative and, erm, kinky he gets. But really, the thrust of his problem is that his mother did a real number on him, and the Jews have had a rough trot in general. I guess there’s probably a greater point in that, about how we experience our problems and what we think are our problems aren’t our real problems, or something… but I’m not here to dissect all that. Honestly, I read Portnoy’s Complaint for the lols, and Roth has plenty of those to offer.



(And the ending is so good! I’d imagine there are a lot of readers who have rolled their eyes and groaned, but I say: boo to them! It effectively turns the whole book into the set-up for a joke, the final words being the punchline. And if that doesn’t convince you to pick up Portnoy’s Complaint and give it a go, I don’t know what will!)

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, given the above, that Portnoy’s Complaint has a glorious history of being banned and challenged across the reading world. In 1969, it was declared a “prohibited import” in Australia. Penguin Books circumvented the ban by having copies printed in Sydney, and storing them in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws. Attempts to prosecute the publishers for this literary subterfuge were successful in some states, but not in others. Eventually, in 1971, Roth’s work was removed from the federal banned content list, but not before “the Portnoy matter” (as it was known) became a watershed in Australian censorship law. It marks the last occasion on which the censorship of a literary publication came before the courts.

My tl;dr summary of Portnoy’s Complaint: a repressed Jewish guy whacks his psychiatrist over the head (repeatedly!) with his Oedipal complex. It’s funny, engaging, and charming – perhaps a little too dirty for some folks, but that’s how I like ’em. Reading Portnoy’s Complaint is like eating apple pie and ice cream for dinner: you could make an argument that there’s some nutritional value in doing it, but ultimately it’s just indulgent and fun for grown-ups.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Portnoy’s Complaint:

  • “I don’t know why I find this surprising given the title of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but there sure is a lot more complaining in this book than I’m used to reading. Also, I guess bagging on one’s family and coming up with 200 euphemisms for masturbation was revolutionary in 1967, but 40 years on and it’s beyond “quaint”. Perhaps our present day society has caught up with and surpassed this level of “lurid?” Regardless, I couldn’t finish it.” – Warren Ernst
  • “great if you like Roth” – jane
  • “Ugh. I don’t get why people like this. Funny, sure, but it reads like a more scatological version of a Woody Allen movie.” – JessiPlaysJazz
  • “I think I can see what the author was trying to tell, but as a gay man I found all the detailed descriptions of hetero sex to be off-putting.” – T. Dreiling
  • “If you like books that are just about masturbation, this is for you.” – J.F. -Lackey
  • “After hearing a lot of good reviews of the book ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ I checked out the internet and fount the book for sale on ‘Amazon’.
    Whilst I wouldn’t rate the book itself as highly as others I was very happy with the transaction.” – Flexi


Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

This is it, people: the one we’ve all been waiting for! Get yourselves a glass of wine and strap in, because after dozens and dozens of books, after a year of searching, I have finally found it: some decent literary smut! If that’s not your thing, look away now, because I tell you what – Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer had me clutching my pearls.

To understand Tropic Of Cancer, you really need to understand the life and times of Henry Miller. See, Tropic of Cancer, much like The Sun Also Rises, and On The Road, is what we call a roman-à-clef (which is a fancy way of saying that Miller wrote a diary and just changed a few names before he published it). Miller grew up in the States, born in 1891 to German-speaking parents and only learning to speak English fluently during his school years. As an adult, he had – shall we say – a complicated romantic life. By way of example, at one point he had an affair with his first wife’s mother. He supported himself through a string of odd-jobs until his second wife took him to Paris. There, she encouraged him to begin writing, and he threw himself whole-heartedly into a life of bohemian squalor. Paris was the place for it, after all; the city was chockers full of debauched artistic types (Hemingway, Joyce, and Beckett all hung out there during the same period), so he had plenty of company.

As he was writing Tropic Of Cancer, his first book, he began a torrid affair with Anaïs Nin (and it was her diaries, published later, that made celebrities of them both). Then, a plot twist: Miller’s wife began an affair with Nin as well. Unsurprisingly, they divorced in 1934, the same year that Tropic Of Cancer was published.



It was an interesting conflation of circumstances that led Tropic Of Cancer to even see the light of day. Firstly, it was the editorial support of Nin – not to mention her financial backing – that got the manuscript to a publishable standard. But even with her guidance and injection of cash, there was the matter of finding a publishing house that would take it on. That’s where the legendary laissez-faire attitude of the French saved the day. See, British and American publishers were constrained by tight obscenity laws and unwilling to take risks on “dirty books”, while the French – predictably – did not give a shit. As such, Tropic Of Cancer was published in Paris for the first time in 1934, but it did not reach the English-speaking world until 1961, after many lengthy legal battles.

I bet you think I’m overstating it. How could a book possibly be so filthy that it warranted 30 years of controversy? Consider the opinion of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, who said that Tropic Of Cancer is “… not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

Given that that’s the case, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I fucking loved it!

“It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Tropic of Cancer (pG 1)

Tropic Of Cancer isn’t a stream of consciousness, but it’s something adjacent to it. It is set in France during the late 1920s and 30s, focusing on Miller’s life as a starving artist. There’s no real linear narrative, and Miller fluctuates fluidly through the past and the present and his philosophical musings on life. It’s basically a string of anecdotes about his friends, lovers, work, life, and neighbourhood, with the occasional epiphany and some fun facts thrown in.

“The physiology of love. The whale with his six-foot penis, in repose. The bat-penis libre. Animals with a bone in the penis. Hence, a bone on… ‘Happily,’ says Gourmont, ‘the bony structure is lost in man’. Happily? Yes, happily. Think of the human race walking around with a bone on. The kangaroo has a double penis – one for week-days and one for holidays.”

Tropic of Cancer (Pg 2-3)

And, yes, there is a lot of filth. I can see why the conservatives kicked up such a stink (which is unusual for me – usually, I’m left wondering what could possibly have caused such offence). I did notice, though, that Miller really writes more about hunger and food than he does about sex. I assume that’s because, well, most bohemians were homeless and starving. Nin once observed to Miller that “in Tropic Of Cancer you were only sex and a stomach”, and that is probably the best assessment of this book that anyone has ever made.

The sex and debauchery that he does describe seems more angry than lustful. It’s abundantly clear that he was trying to make a point, moreso than titillate the reader (not that he was opposed to a bit of titillation, mind you – he and Nin both made their pocket money writing erotica to order, mostly for private collectors). I read some commentators say that the pornographic passages “no longer shock” the modern reader, but I’ll happily stick up my hand and say that references to inserting reptiles and rodents into a woman’s rectum were still pretty damn confronting for me.

There’s also a lot of quibbling among the various readers and critics as to whether Miller was a misogynist, and whether Tropic Of Cancer was a misogynistic book. I’m sure he was, to an extent, but to me most of the woman-hate-y passages read as so tongue-in-cheek that I couldn’t imagine even Miller himself taking them seriously. Plus, the men in the book were hardly a picnic. I keep coming around to the same question: does it matter? Whether Miller hated women seems to be largely beside the point. What matters more is whether today’s reader can think critically about his misogynistic portrayal – real or imagined – in a contemporary context. I’d hate to think that some incel fuck-knuckle would read this book and use it to justify his hatred of women, but I’m also a firm believer in “you don’t read the book, the book reads you”. Misogynists will find misogyny in anything they read, regardless of the author’s intent, and that’s that.



There is a sequel, Tropic of Capricorn, published five years after Tropic Of Cancer, and it too was banned in all English-speaking countries for nearly 30 years. It actually covers an earlier period in Miller’s life, so I guess that makes it a “prequel” more than anything. When the two books finally reached the English speaking world, together, Miller became a household name. He was hailed by the Sixties counter-culture as a “prophet of freedom and sexual revolution”. Or, in my own words, Miller did what Kerouac did, but better than Kerouac did it, while Kerouac was still in grade school.

I couldn’t possibly recommend this book blindly. It’s too smutty, and Miller makes liberal use of the c-bomb and all other manner of creative profanity. Tropic Of Cancer is artistic and esoteric, in the extreme. So, if the appeal of Paris for you is strolling the Champs E’lysses and taking in high fashion and fine art while munching on croissants, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, the idea of filth, hunger, homelessness, squalor, and despair gets your motor running, and dying in a Parisian gutter of venereal disease sounds romantic, then Tropic Of Cancer is probably just your speed. Guess which camp I fall into… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Tropic Of Cancer:

  • “Lordy what a waste of ink and paper.” – C. Richter
  • “I hated this book. About as erotic as a software manual.” – Golindrina
  • “This is an easy read if you’re an English Lit. fellow at Princeton.” – Rob Wallace
  • “This book reminds me of sitting out on my back porch listening to my drunken neighbor telling dirty lies…sometimes funny and sometimes annoying. It is a definite rambler but entertaining at times. The book was good enough to finish” – Stephen F. Brecht
  • “Beautifully offensive” – Jorge
  • “Wife seems very happy with the books ;-)” – Mark D
  • “If you want to improve your vocabulary and have a rollicking good time doing it, the sexist pig Miller is your best bet! TREMENDOUS VITALITY!” – Richard Stark


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