Ohhhh, we’re half-way there! (And if you’re half the eighties rock fan I am, you sang that line in your head.) I am officially halfway through my reading list: 55 books down, 54 books to go. It seems incredible to me that what started as a half-hearted joke with my husband about how much literature I was missing out on has become this huge project, and I’ve managed to make it halfway through (relatively) unscathed. What’s a girl to do but write a celebratory list post of the highlights? Here are the best books I’ve read so far, at this point, halfway to my ultimate goal of Keeping Up With The Penguins.
The First Book I Loved: David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)
I always knew Charles Dickens was the Grand Poobah of English literature, but I had no idea I was going to discover a book I loved so much, so early in this project. I was only a few books in, and this one bowled me right the fuck over. You can read my full review here, but suffice to say that I devoured David Copperfield like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion is beautifully rendered. Critics have hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what they call “supermarket” writing; novels were the primary source of family entertainment back then (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to weave a bit of everything into his stories to keep the everyone happy. Critics be damned, I think it’s precisely this “just chuck it all in the pot and give it a stir” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book. Buy it here.
The Best Non-Fiction Book I’ve Read: In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
I realise that, given the creative liberties that Truman Capote took with the story of the Clutter murders, calling In Cold Blood “non-fiction” might be a bit rich… but I stand by it. I’ve read some great pop-science books, of course (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything gets an honourable mention), but In Cold Blood was definitely the most beautiful and readable non-fiction offering from The List. I hate the term “page-turner”, but there’s really no other way to describe it. I was fucking gripped, with white knuckles, the whole way through. Read my full review here, and buy Capote’s magnum opus here.
The Most Underrated Book I’ve Read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)
I’m still not over my shock that I hadn’t heard of (let alone read) this incredible book before I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a travesty, I tell you – a criminal oversight of the book-loving community. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is also one of the very, very few books that gets an actual spoiler warning in my review, which should be testament enough to the strength of the plot-twist. If you ask me for a book recommendation these days, it’s almost inevitable that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be top of my list; even if you tell me you’ve already read it, I’ll tell you to read it again. Buy it here, if you haven’t already (and read it before you read my review!).
The Best Classic Book I’ve Read: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
Bearing in mind that I usually define a classic as a book that has lasted over a hundred years and maintained a level of popularity and interest, my favourite so far has to have been Jane Eyre. In fact, I clutched this book to my chest and smiled so often I started to look like a woman in a bad infomercial. I know Wuthering Heights gets most of the love and attention, but to me Jane Eyre is clearly superior (and it’s on that basis that I declared Charlotte to be the best Brontë). I’ve crammed my review full of fun facts about Charlotte and this book, and you can learn even more from the introduction to this fantastic Penguin Classics edition.
The Most Fun Book To Read: The Adventures of Sherlock Homes (Arthur Conan Doyle)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes isn’t typically billed as a “funny” book, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it: it was just really fun to read! Sherlock’s adventures are presented as a series of short stories, and I was blown away by Doyle’s economy of language – how he managed to cram so much into so few words is still beyond me (it takes me longer to describe what happens in one of the cases than it does for Doyle to tell the whole story). It’s good, clean fun, too, which is not usually my kind of thing, but it’s great for anyone looking for a classic that the whole family can enjoy. Read my full review here, and buy the collection here.
The Book That Lived Up To The Hype: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
I know it’s super-weird that I hadn’t read this one prior to Keeping Up With The Penguins, given that it’s a staple of high-school required reading lists… but somehow I squirmed out of that particular rite of passage. So, I came to it later in life, cynical enough to think there was no way that Harper Lee’s only true novel could live up to the hype. Imagine my surprise when it did! In fact, it exceeded it. To Kill A Mockingbird is a stunning read, no matter when you come to it. It’s not without its issues, of course (which I address, very briefly, in my review), and the release of Go Set A Watchman was controversial at best (and a disgusting violation at worst), but I hate to think that any of that detracts from our appreciation of Lee’s masterful writing. If you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird yet, there’s no shame, just get a copy here – right now!
The Most Beautifully Written Book: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)
My Brilliant Friend is so wonderful, I was actually nervous about posting my review; I didn’t think there was any way that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s beautiful writing justice. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read in my entire life. Of course, credit doesn’t go only to Ferrante – there’s also her translator, Ann Goldstein, who somehow retained the beautiful rolling lyricism of the original Italian without the slightest hint that the work was not originally written in English. Luckily, My Brilliant Friend is just the first in the series of Neapolitan novels, so there’s plenty more Ferrante to sustain you once you’re done – get them all here.
The Biggest Surprise: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Crime and Punishment ended up on my reading list almost as a joke: my husband suggested it, never believing for a second that I would actually read it. In fact, I didn’t even believe that I would actually read it! I thought this Russian classic was for pretentious losers who name-drop at parties and wear fedoras inside. And then I had to eat my fucking words, because I did read it and I loved it! Raskolnikov is (and I know I probably shouldn’t say this about a literal axe-murderer, but whatever) so damn relatable, a bundle of nerves slowly unravelling in 19th century St Petersburg, and it’s so readable I would have totally believed it was a contemporary historical novel. I said as much in my review. Don’t believe me? Get it and see for yourself.
And there we have it! Of course, many thanks go to all of you who have stuck with me for the last year and a bit; I can’t wait to see what adventures we go on as we cruise through to the finish 😉 And my question for all of you today: what have been YOUR favourites so far in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook)!
I’d love to keep on Keeping Up With The Penguins, and find more wonderful recommended reads to bring to you! If you’d like to help, you can tip – any amount you like – through the banner below. Thanks a million!