20 Favourite Books from my 20s

My 20s were perhaps the most exciting reading period of my life. When they began I was studying literature at university, including two amazing units on American literature which ignited a love of American fiction which continues to this day. It was also a period when I went beyond ‘the canon’ for the first time and began reading more widely and according to my own interests; when I first encountered absurd/surreal fiction; and when I discovered some of the writers whose work I still admire in my forties, including Ann Patchett and Jonathan Franzen. Being pre-kids, I had so much more time for reading then: for a year I worked in ‘Zone 3’ which meant two hours a day on public transport—a year in which I read more than 100 books. It was impossible to narrow all the books I read in my twenties down to a top 10, but I managed to get it down to 20. These are not necessarily my favourites, but the ones that seem significant to me, even now.

Playing with Language

Jeanette Winterson was the first writer I came across who played around with words and notions of truth in storytelling. I was swept away by the prose in The Passion, and the ideas. I remember writing this quote in the front of my diary:

It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again, that the time is now and the place is here and there are no second chances at a single moment.

I went on to read everything she had written to date, including her memoir, and a book of essays on art, something I would never normally have picked up. She lost me at The Stone Gods and I ‘ve never gone back to her.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers

Aged 21, I travelled alone for the first time and it was terrifying. I felt vulnerable and ill-equipped to be alone. My boyfriend sent me a copy of this book of essays and excerpts from women writing about their travels. How much courage that book gave me! To read about the intrepid adventures of other women heartened my soul. Afterwards, I wrote to the editor, Mary Morris, and she wrote me the most gorgeous letter in reply.

Poetic Prose

After Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for The English Patient, I read every one of his books, including his memoir and poetry. His prose was utterly intoxicating to me, and his stories resonated very deeply with me on an emotional level. I felt the same about his Canadian counterpart Anne Michaels, and her devastating and beautiful holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces.

Scandi Crime Time

Before Scandinavian crime became a THING, there was Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. It’s very rare for me to read crime but Smilla was the only English-language book in the bookshop I went to in Budapest, so I didn’t have much choice! I was instantly enthralled, luckily, absorbed by the density of the language and the intricacy of the plot, and went on to read all of Hoeg’s books, as well as re-reading Smilla many times.

Speculative Fiction

No list of mine would be complete without some speculative fiction and Frank Herbert’s Dune is, to me, a masterwork within the genre. The level of thought behind the plot is astounding—he makes Machiavelli look like an amateur! And the world building – holy moly – the guy wrote an entire geology of a made-up planet! The book is so dense with information I had to read EVERY SENTENCE twice. It was hard work but so worth it. I’ve read it again since, and will probably go on reading it for the rest of my life. A much more contemporary spec-fic book which really grabbed my imagination was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I love her sharp wit and the terrifying near-future scenarios which seem entirely plausible, if not inevitable.

Japanese WTF-ery

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of the most WTF books ever. I mean what the hell is going on with the well? And how can he keep cooking spaghetti through it all? I consumed all Murakami’s weird and wonderful books in a super-fun surrealist binge. Quite different and yet equally inexplicable is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, in which what seems like a relatively stuffy premise—a famous musician returning to his hometown—becomes like a fever dream. Still my favourite of Ishiguro’s books.

Ann Patchett

In my mid-twenties I read Ann Patchett‘s fourth novel Bel Canto and fell madly in love. I’ve read it six or seven times since, as well as reading her backlist and everything she has published since. Her books don’t always quite hit the spot for me—her latest, Commonwealth, I found really disappointing—but there is something about her human observations which resonates deeply with me, and her prose is beautiful.

Art-World Psycho Drama

Siri Hustvedt‘s tale of two artists, their partners and children, over many years takes a hugely unexpected turn about half way through and turns into another book entirely.What I Loved is exciting and dreadful and it kept me up at night even on the second and third read.

Retro Zaniness

Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion is a quintessential sixties book, somehow turning a sordid trip to Mexico for a backyard abortion into a light-hearted romp. His book are very much of their time and seem slightly quaint now, albeit in a ‘far-out’ way. This is perhaps the least adventurous of his books; some of the others are more experimental and perhaps better, but this was the first of his I read, and keeps a special place in my heart for that reason.

Minutia Fiction

Who knew you could write a whole book about things like what fillings different family members like in their sandwiches? Don DeLillo knew! Way before anyone else. His 1981 novel White Noise still blows my mind and I discover something new every time I read it. Through DeLillo I discovered that a book about nothing could actually be a book about everything, a formula that worked brilliantly for Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, the novel that blasted him into super-stardom, and also for Dave Eggers, in his debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, though his book was memoir and needed a bit of tidying up, quite frankly! Zadie Smith also experimented with this style in her least-loved, but my favourite of her novels, The Autograph Man.

Personal Essays

My brother bought a copy of Lily Brett’s In Full View for my mum for Christmas. A few days alter mum brought it on a family holiday. She had already started reading it and read a section aloud. later I picked it up and started reading and my brother did the same. Pretty soon we were fighting over it – as soon as someone put it down someone else picked it up! At that time I rarely read non-fiction and the topics she wrote about including marriage, parenthood, her struggles with eating disorders and even ageing were not subjects I would have ordinarily been interested in at that age, but Brett’s candid and funny style is so warm and relatable, she could write about anything at all and it would be compulsively readable.

OzLit

At age 21, I studied creative writing at university and one of my ‘readers’ contained an extract from Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy. I immediately went out and bought a copy. Part-memoir, part-fiction, this beautiful book is the story of a woman coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness in her childhood. At the time, the book resonated with me as a daughter. Many years later, as a mother with post-natal depression, it resonated even more deeply. I think it is a rare book that can grow with you like that.

Having spent most of my childhood in England, I wasn’t raised on Australian literature, and didn’t really begin to discover it until I started university and read Helen Garner and Kate Grenville. My favourite Australian fiction from that period of my life is Peter Carey‘s wonderful and really quite heartbreaking epic Oscar and Lucinda, and Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Even writing about those books for my PhD thesis didn’t kill my love for them and that’s really saying something!

Your turn: What were the books you loved in your twenties? Have any of them stayed with you or are there some that make you cringe now? Have you read any from my list? Let me know in the comments.

13 thoughts on “20 Favourite Books from my 20s

  1. A great list Annabel – and several of my favourites on there. I particularly enjoyed the story of Winterson (Loved: loved: read every last thing: one bad book and she’s gone! Ice-cold!) ha.

    I’m not much of a list maker , but I’ve challenged myself to have a go at this one. And I’ve committed myself to being entirely honest, so here goes. (And I’ve only included fiction – so none of the poetry, non-fic, biography, etc. binges).

    Phase I) The early 20s was committed almost entirely to Australian fiction (having gorged on classics to that point). And I was living in Brisbane, so when I think of these books now I think of reading them in endless heat and sunlight. These four are ones that had a particularly strong effect on me. All very interior. Often describing the horrible in beautiful ways. Lots of humidity and drinking.

    The Children’s Bach, Helen Garner
    The Scent of Eucalyptus, Barbara Hanrahan
    Candy, Luke Davies
    1988, Andrew McGahon

    Phase II) A short but intense period of being fixated on big-hitting Americans (that I’m noticing now were mostly men). Probably started with White Noise (which is that rare thing of being both very serious and very funny). DFW is also much funnier than he gets credit for. Likewise Franzen (not so much Chabon). The Corrections was a big one for me. Again, very painful and important, very funny. Very popular choice, of course, but I’ve committed to being truthful. I’ve snuck Great Jones Street in there as well because I couldn’t split it from WN.

    Infinite Jest, David Foster-Wallace
    White Noise/Great Jones Street, Don DeLillo
    The Corrections, Franzen.
    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon.

    Phase III) I became quite stuck on Cheever for a spell. Much like Evelyn Waugh (who will appear in great proportions later), Cheever has a somewhat crusty and difficult exterior layer that is thin and hiding a deep, hurt centre. Cheever writes like an angel. A drunk, self-sabotaging, broken-hearted angel. I’ve bunged Falconer in here but nearly everything he wrote is wonderful, particularly the short stories. Waned only a little at the end as his alcoholism took hold.

    Falconer, John Cheever

    Phase IV) I had French Literature bit (coupled with a Russian bit, which hasn’t made the cut). I think Bovary really is as wonderful and perfect as its reputation suggests. I’ve read most of the translations and they are all quite different. I really recommend the Alan Russell trans. I have no idea if it’s accurate, but it’s beautiful. Most of Daudet is wonderful, especially Windmill. Again – another untethered, broken heart.

    Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
    Letters from My Windmill, Alphonse Daudet

    Phase V) English 1980s/1990s authors. Can’t recall how I came into this stream (possibly through Barnes’ translation of a Daudet book). Oh, such delight here. Coe is the funniest and What a Carve Up! his cleverest. The Blue Flower was my first Penelope Fitzgerald and I ate up all her others in a frenzy. Blue Flower is so perfectly complete and dreamlike and mysterious. Never Mind is the first of the Patrick Melrose novels for St Aubyn, and it might be one of my favourites of the lot. So amazingly concise. So delicious. Every word is necessary. Every character terrible. Oh goodness. And Julian Barnes: for a long time in my 20s I would say he was my favourite author. I love him so much I can now no longer objectively judge his writing; he’s a big part of my life. I got a postcard from him once and in that instant it became my most prized possession. Talking it Over is him at his funniest and most insightful.

    What A Carve Up!, Jonathan Coe.
    Never Mind, Edward St Aubyn
    The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
    Talking it Over, Julian Barnes.

    Phase VI) This phase occupied most of my twenties and I’ve never left it. British (mostly English) fiction from Valmouth to Brideshead Revisited (1919-1945, so lets say the interwar years). This time and writing is the greatest passion of mine. Very out of favour, very unsurprising, but I’m being honest, so there it is. Firbank is breath-taking. All his novels are slim, all bursting with charm and humour and campness and silliness, all hiding that undercurrent of pain. Mitford is a dream (expect for the quite lousy pseudo-historicals), Spark unstoppable. A very different tone, but like Firbank and St Aubyn, Spark packs just so much into such small a space. Graham Greene: one of the central pillars of the silly man I’ve become. The middle period of his writing is one of the greatest runs in literature. Brighton Rock could have been in here, The Heart of the Matter, England Made Me, on and on. And finally to Evelyn Waugh. He is my everything. My east, my west, all the rest. The sweetest, saddest, funniest, cleverest, strangest creature. The exterior is a disguise, underneath is all magic, and again, all misery and tricks. As Nancy Mitford said about him: ‘What nobody ever remembers about Evelyn is that everything with him was jokes.’

    Valmouth, Ronald Firbank
    The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Murial Spark
    The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
    A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh

    1. What a wonderful list, but also a terrible one because it makes me feel woefully under-read. Apart from the contemporary American writers, I’ve hardly read any of the writers on your list. My neglect of British writers is particularly notable. I’ve read a couple of Greene’s, I don’t think I really ‘get’ them; I did love Miss Jean Brodie. The only Julian Barnes I’ve read is Sense of an Ending and I hated it so much, I don’t know if I want to try something else. I’ve also neglected les francais very badly. I can’t believe you’ve read multiple translations of the same book. Have you read the wonderful Paris Review essay on translating Bovary?

      I couldn’t get to grips with Infinite Jest. I have to try Jones Street if you think it on a par with White Noise. I haven’t liked any of the other DeLillo books I’ve tried (Underworld, Body Artist, Metropolis). Chabon is very hit and mis for me – I found K&K dull but some of his books are wonderful, and I think he can be very funny, especially Wonder Boys and Telegraph Ave. I was thrilled to meet him at Ubud Writers festival a couple of years ago and he was such a charming man. Major crush here. I don’t think I realised how funny Franzen was until I saw him read from his work in person. Then I realised practically every word was dripping with irony. I’m sure I’ll read his next book quite differently.

      I’ll definitely be adding some of these to my to-read list. Thanks again for taking the time to join in by making your own list.

      1. I also get the ‘woefully underfed’ feeling whenever I read anyone else’s lists. Too, too many books in the world!

        I don’t make a habit of reading multiple translations, Bovary is an exception because I was interested in how different the interpretations were. (Similar to all the Homers and Early Text stuff). Really hammered home to me how much we’re reading the translator when we read a translated text. And yes, I thought the Paris review essay on Bovary was really interesting.

        I’m glad you brought up Sense of an Ending. I have read every single word Julian Barnes has published (just about) and I think that novel is definitely one of the weakest things he’s put out. I still like it, but it’s a terrible place to start with Barnes. I have encountered so many people who read it after he won the Booker and were disappointed. He really is, generally, much more interesting than that. I’d go with Flaubert’s Parrot or History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

        Very jealous of you meeting Chabon!!

        1. I don’t think I realised that thing about ‘reading the translator’ until I read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and found it so different to all his other books. When I checked, I saw most of the ones i’d read thus far had been translated by one guy, and Kafka was translated by someone different.

          Okay, I’ll take your word for it that SOAE is a terrible place to start with Barnes and I’ll give him another go.

          Don’t get me started with Chabon. He was honesty such a dreamboat. His wife was awesome too but I’d take her out!

  2. Lovely post 🙂 (and loved your mention of the benefits of Zone 3!).

    Because I’m vastly older than you 😉 the reading of my twenties is somewhat different. The chick-lit trend, when all books had hot-pink covers, did influence my reading a little – I do remember spending whole Sundays in bed reading trash, probably partly due to the fact that I had a stressful job for much of the time and I really felt the need to switch off.

    My twenties was also my Middle East reading phase, the tail-end of my China phase and the time when I was most diligent about reading prize winners. I recall lots of Tim Winton, John Birmingham, Nick Earls and Nick Hornby. The books that stand-out in my memory – Angela’s Ashes and Memoirs of a Geisha. I haven’t reread either for fear of spoiling the memory.

    1. I haven’t read any of Nick Earls’ early books but I loved the Wisdom Tree novellas – have you read those? I loved Angela’s Ashes. I shunned Memoirs of a Geisha as being too lowbrow, then I read it on a holiday when there was nothing else, and loved it. Never had a chick-lit phase though (unless sweet valley high counts!).

  3. My twenties were so long ago that I really can’t remember them, beyond my university reading which was pretty traditional but I loved it.

    I do remember though falling in love with Camus. I read every one of his books in my twenties. I re-read all my Austens. I read short stories. And I read a lot of biography and autobiography after university – including Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and Queen Victoria.

    My real memory goes to my early thirties when I fell in love with Virago Press – discovered EH Young, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth von Arnim, and so many more – and when I fell hard for Australian lit, for Jolley, Masters, Garner, Adams, Astley, Mears, and some men like Tim Winton, Rodney Hall.

    1. I read a couple of Camus but I don’t think I understood them at all. I did love Jane Austen! I read 3 1/2 books in a row and then I stopped, possibly forever.

      I have hardly read any biography or autobiography, although I do like ones about writers.

      There are people on your list of Virago Press authors and OzLit who I don’t even know. How awkward! I’m also really ashamed to admit i’ve never read Thea Astley. Even my brother has read It’s Raining in Mango and he’s only read about 6 novels in his entire life!

      I do like your ‘some men’ – hahaha

  4. Hard to recall, but I think I was still reading stuff like Agatha Christie and John Buchan, of whom ‘Greenmantle’ was my favourite; I was particularly taken by a character’s remark about the protagonist: “He speaks the eastern languages”! I also read authors that had been on the school reading list; for instance, William Golding (I recall ‘Spire’) and Thomas Hardy (‘Tess’). Being a young misery-guts, I wallowed in grim Graham Greene, who I now think was over-rated.
    Someone under-rated by the literary establishment is John LeCarre, whose 1970s novels were eagerly awaited by me. Of course, you have to say that most were good ‘as thrillers’ but I think ‘A Perfect Spy’ was a great study of a father-son relationship (it was not about espionage).
    Looking back, I can’t help feeling my reading at the time was a bit lightweight, perhaps because my evenings were full of lectures and heavy reading for courses.
    Since then, your nominees ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’, ‘Cloudstreet’ (set where and when I grew up) and ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ are among my all-time faves.

    1. a misery-guts, were you?! I read those school reading list books with relish – Golding, and Huxley and Hartley. I’ve never read a LeCarre, and only one Agatha Christie I think. Glad to hear we share a few favourites in common. Hope you’re well, Mike.

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