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18 Pulitzer Prize Winning Books

The Pulitzer Prizes are a set of awards given each year for achievements in American journalism, literature, and composition. You might have noticed that quite a few of the books I’ve read and recommended here on Keeping Up With The Penguins are lauded as Pulitzer Prize-winners – for some reason, I seem to share a literary sensibility with the panel of judges. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (formerly the Pulitzer Prize for Novel) is awarded “for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. Here are eighteen great Pulitzer Prize-winning books from the past 100 years.

18 Pulitzer Prize Winning Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you purchase one of these Pulitzer Prize winning books through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.

March by Geraldine Brooks

March - Geraldine Brooks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2006

In her 2005 novel, March, Geraldine Brooks reimagines Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women from the perspective of the mostly-absent March patriarch. The Pulitzer Prize judges commended Brooks for adding “adult resonance to Alcott’s optimistic children’s tale to portray the moral complexity of war, and a marriage tested”. They called March “a lushly written, wholly original tale steeped in the details of another time”.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1940

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath is now widely considered a classic of American working class literature, and a strong contender for the Great American Novel moniker. In the year following its 1939 release, Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel, and the National Book Award, for his searing social commentary. It was also the best-selling novel of the year (an astonishing 430,000 copies), and the Armed Services Edition went through two full print runs. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015

Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See explores the depth and breadth of human nature through a story about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in unlikely circumstances over the course of WWII. According to the Pulitzer Prize judges, Doerr “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another”. They called this New York Times best-seller “dazzling … a magnificent, deeply moving novel”. Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1953

The Old Man And The Sea was first published in 1952, the last major work of fiction by Hemingway to be published during his lifetime. The deceptively short and simple story revolves around an aging Cuban fisherman, and his struggle to reel in a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream. Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year following its release, and it was also cited specifically in the judges’ comments when he received a Nobel Prize for Literature (which Hemingway, in turn, dedicated to the people of Cuba).

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2003

Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex tells the uniquely intertwined history of Cal, an intersex third-generation Greek American. The Pulitzer Board described it as a “vastly realized, multi-generational novel as highspirited as it is intelligent … Like the masks of Greek drama, Middlesex is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but its real triumph is its emotional abundance, delivered with consummate authority and grace,”. Read my full review of Middlesex here.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory - Richard Powers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019

Richard Powers’ The Overstory is “a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance”, one that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among several other awards and short-listings in 2019. It contains the stories of nine fictional Americans, each of whom share some special connection to trees, despite their disparate circumstances and eras. The Pulitzer Prize website describes it as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them,”.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell


Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1937

Gone With The Wind is best known these days as the classic film, but back in 1936 it was an astonishingly popular novel by American author Margaret Mitchell. It was an instant best-seller, with hundreds of thousands of copies flying off the shelves long before the 1939 film adaptation. It depicts a questionable coming-of-age story against the backdrop of a horribly white-washed version of Southern plantation life immediately prior to and during the Civil War. It doesn’t stand up to today’s critical scrutiny, but at the time it was a phenomenon, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel the year following its release.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours - Michael Cunningham - Keeping Up With The Penguins115

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1999

As the ’90s drew to a close, Michael Cunningham was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, a novel that draws upon the life and work of Virginia Woolf “to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters who are struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair”. It is a “passionate, profound, and deeply moving” novel, one that is still widely recognised as Cunningham’s most remarkable literary achievement. Read my full review of The Hours here.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From The Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad is “an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed”. Egan centres the story on the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker, and his employee, the young and passionate Sasha. Told through a series of creative and innovative formats, this story “captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both”.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1988

Toni Morrison was awarded a slew of prizes for her 1987 novel Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among them. It seems particularly fitting, given that she hoped for the novel to stand in as a memorial testament to the lives lost and damaged beyond recognition by the Atlantic slave trade (“There’s no small bench by the road,” she said, “and because such a place doesn’t exist, that I know of, the book had to.”) In this unique story, of a former slave living a haunted life in Cincinnati, Morrison captures a universal pain and shame. Read my full review of Beloved here.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018

It’s so rare that a truly funny book wins the Pulitzer Prize – which makes it all the more special when one does! Less got the gong in 2018, and it was very well deserved. The story revolves around Arthur Less, an aging gay man so desperate to avoid the wedding of his ex-lover that he accepts every invitation to every half-baked literary event around the world. Less is “a scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, [and] a bittersweet romance of chances lost”. Read my full review of Less here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1921

In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for The Age Of Innocence. It was a controversial choice, but not (necessarily) because of the author’s gender. The Pulitzer Prize for Novel was originally set to go to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, as per the choice of the Prize’s jury at the time, but the board overruled them and awarded the prize to Wharton instead. The apparent reason for the switch was Lewis’s novel having “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West”, and Wharton said in a note to Lewis that she “despaired” over the decision. Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2008

Junot Diaz has fallen from grace since being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, having been called out for despicable behaviour as part of the #MeToo reckoning. Despite the revelations, however, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is still sold in editions with a Pulitzer Prize seal embossed on the cover. The story itself is a fascinating window into an aspect of American life – a Dominican-American who dreams of overcoming the challenges of his ghetto home to find love and success – but can we really separate the art from the artist?

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

All The King's Men - Robert Penn Warren - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1947

Who would’ve thought, when Robert Penn Warren was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1947 for his fictionalised account of the troubled term of a populist governor, that it would still be so resonant over seventy years later? All The King’s Men traces the political career of Willie Stark, a cynical Southerner who seems destined for the life (and death) of a messianic figure. The New York Time Book Review called the book “magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue sparks,”. Read my full review of All The King’s Men here.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017

The Underground Railroad is a semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. It “combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America,”. According to the judges, “The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.” Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1983

Alice Walker became the first ever black woman to win a Pulitzer when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple in 1983. It has retained its cultural currency across the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. The story of a young black girl, told through her letters to God, is a challenging read, but a vital and perennially relevant one. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road - Cormac McCarthy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007

Cormac McCarthy is a notoriously reclusive contemporary writer, but he granted rare and special insight into his writing process and creative mind after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Road in 2007. He told Oprah that it took him only six weeks to write the haunting post-apocalyptic novel. The idea came to him after a road trip with his son in El Paso, where he found himself wondering what the road might look like in a hundred years’ time. “It is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of,” according to his publisher.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1961

To Kill A Mockingbird has been widely considered one of the most iconic American novels of all time since its release, so it was hardly a surprise when Harper Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The judges were openly disappointed in the literary offerings from established writers that year, but credited Lee with “revitalising American fiction” and producing a novel of “unusual distinction”. Her friend, Truman Capote, was happy for her – but remained bitter that she had won a Pulitzer, while he hadn’t for In Cold Blood, until his death. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

13 Books By Nobel Prize Winners

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

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

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Flights - Olga Tokarczuk - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 2018

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

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1954

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

One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1982

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

Death At Intervals by José Saramago

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1998

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

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1949

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

The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1976

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

An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 2017

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

Bonus: Ishiguro is probably better known for his literary sci-fi novel Never Let Me Go – I’ve reviewed that one too, here.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1907

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

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1969

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

Bonus: Beckett is probably better known for his bizarre play, Waiting For Godot – I’ve reviewed it, too, here.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nobel Prize For Literature 1993

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

Bonus: Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is almost as widely beloved – read my full review here.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 2007

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

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1962

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

Bonus: You probably had to read Of Mice And Men in high-school – check out my full review of that one here, too.

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

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

Nobel Prize For Literature 1983

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

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

UPDATED: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

15 Short Books To Read

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

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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

180 pages

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

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang - Keeping Up With The Penguins

183 pages

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

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

167 pages

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

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

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

213 pages

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

Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

189 pages

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

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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

118 pages

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

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

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

172 pages

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

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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

128 pages

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

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

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

171 pages

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

Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

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

130 pages

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

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

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

152 pages

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

Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck

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

103 pages

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

The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Keeping Up With The Penguins

204 pages

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

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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

149 pages

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

A Horse Walks Into A Bar by David Grossman

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

198 pages

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

My Kondo 30

Remember when Marie Kondo suggested that adherents to her minimalist lifestyle keep “no more than 30 books” and we all collectively lost our goddamn minds? It wasn’t all that long ago (though it feels like decades, with everything that’s happened since). With my city in lockdown this month, I half-heartedly considered a spring-clean project, but rather than actually do anything like that, I decided to make this list instead. If I had to, under pain of KonMari, could I narrow down my book collection (800+ and counting)? Here’s my Kondo 30.

My Kondo 30 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you use an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission (which will help grow my maximalist book collection).

1. and my heart crumples like a coke can by Ali Whitelock

and my heart crumples like a coke can - Ali Whitelock - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ali Whitelock is a poet and a darling friend of mine (she was kind enough to invite me to MC her local poetry night). and my heart crumples like a coke can is her first poetry collection, and even though I’ll admit I’m biased, it’s the one I thrust into people’s hands when they try to tell me that they “don’t like poetry”. This copy that I have is inscribed with a personal message from Ali, and I hold it very close to my heart. It also contains some of the best poetry I’ve ever had the privilege to read, the kind that led local author Mark Tredennick to describe Ali as “Bukowski with a Glaswegian accent”.

2. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

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

I have developed a bit of an addiction to off-centre literature by Japanese women, and the gateway drug was Convenience Store Woman. I’m still flabbergasted that this was the first of Sayaka Murata’s ten novels to be translated into English. It’s a slim little book, with a gorgeous cover design (the kind that makes you want to fist pump). That in itself is enough to make me want to save it from Kondo’s ravages, but I have another reason: I also read and loved her follow-up novel, Earthlings… and I loved it so much that I made the mistake of lending it to a friend. I’ll never get it back, which makes me all the more determined to hang on to this one. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

Yes, Charles Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature (reason enough to want to keep him on the shelves), but for me he’s also inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather. Granddad idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. This gorgeous two-volume set of David Copperfield (maybe a little worse for wear but still readable) was plucked from my grandparents’ collection, and I’m sure Granddad would have been damn proud that I finally read it, and loved it, and included it here in my Kondo 30. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

4. Depends What You Mean By Extremist by John Safran

Depends What You Mean By Extremist - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not to be a basic bitch about it, but John Safran is my celebrity crush. I’m not sure what it is about him: his cheekiness? His wonderful (now defunct) radio show, co-hosted with Father Bob? His willingness to thumb his nose at authority? Whatever it is, it worked! Well enough for me to drag my poor husband along to the launch of Depends What You Mean By Extremist – and make him wait patiently, taking photos, as Safran personally inscribed and signed my copy. I could never bring myself to part with this book, if only for the memories of being so close to a gentleman who makes my heart beat quick.

5. Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know the saying “to live in one’s head rent-free”? (You’re forgiven if the answer is “no” and you’re over the age of 30.) Everywhere I Look lives in my head rent-free; rare is the day that I don’t think back to some gem of wisdom that Garner shared with us in this essay collection. Of course, she’s better known for her auto-fiction (like Monkey Grip) and true crime (like This House Of Grief), but for me, this collection of miscellaneous musings will always be the definitive Garner. I refer back to it constantly, and you (ahem, Marie Kondo) couldn’t convince me to part with it for all the money in the world.

6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

It’s impossible for me to have a conversation about The Great Gatsby without bringing up this, its (in my view, perfect) counterpoint: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. No shade if you didn’t realise before now that it was a book before it was a Marilyn Monroe film – I didn’t realise, either, until I read it! This is the definitive Jazz Age novel, as far as I’m concerned, with all the glitz and glamour you could ask for, plus a heaping side serve of social critique and feminist ideals. I have a hard time convincing some readers that the protagonist, ditzy blonde Lorelai Lee, is a feminist icon – but I’d have an even harder time of it if I didn’t have a copy to hand to quote from! Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

7. Good Talk by Mira Jacobs

Good Talk - Mira Jacob - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Graphic novels aren’t “my thing”… or, at least, they weren’t until I read Good Talk and it completely up-ended my expectation of what a graphic novel could be. This is a memoir, of sorts, from Mira Jacobs, a woman of colour who has thoughtfully transcribed and illustrated a series of conversations from her life about racism and how to live with it. It all starts with a seemingly-innocent line of questioning from her son about Michael Jackson, and guides the reader through everything from job interviews to parenting. This graphic novel is so good, I’ve pulled it out at parties to show friends my favourite bits. If I parted with it, I’d risk finding myself at a loss the next time party conversation turned to white privilege. Read my full review of Good Talk here.

8. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus

I Love Dick - Chris Kraus - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Love it or hate it, I Love Dick is a great conversation starter. Even for people who have never read it, never heard of Chris Kraus, have no opinion on autofiction or psychosexual obsession – the title is enough to keep the chat going. Failing that, it will put the bores off enough that you’ll never have to see them again. This is the kind of book I love to read on public transport, just to see how other people react. I couldn’t bring myself to part with it! Read my full review of I Love Dick here.

9. In My Skin by Kate Holden

In My Skin - Kate Holden - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t remember where exactly I picked up my copy of In My Skin, or what drew me to it, but I remember how old I was (peak-teen-angst years) and all the dank boarding-school rooms in which I pored over it. I read it again, and again, and again. Holden’s memoir of her years as a heroin addict and sex worker weren’t exactly “relatable” to me in my regional-Queensland teen life, but I found something captivating in those pages, and they opened my eyes to a whole other view of the world we live in. Every time I re-read this book, my heart and mind are captured in the very same way, all over again. I couldn’t possibly part with it.

10. In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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

There are a lot of great books out there, but very few of them literally change the way you think about what a book can be. In The Dream House is one of those rare gems, a book that completely upended my expectations of all memoirs to follow. Machado unravels the knot of a formative romantic relationship she had with a woman who abused her. Each chapter borrows a well-worn trope – the haunted house, the bildungsroman, the happily ever after – to tell a story that has all-too-often been overlooked in literature. I could no more let go of this book than a religious scholar could let go of a holy text. Read my full review of In The Dream House here.

11. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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

This copy of Lolita, if I recall correctly, belonged to my husband before me met… but what’s his is ours, now, so I’m claiming it for my own. It’s a book that tends to elicit a lot of strong opinions, but in my experience those who feel negatively about it are mostly responding to the cultural myth surrounding the story, rather than the book itself. The fact that Nabokov wrote this book – an impeccable masterpiece of madness – in his second language is astounding to me. I’d give anything to have a tenth of his linguistic talent in my native tongue. I suppose that makes the book itself a totem of inspiration, or aspiration, or something. Whatever it is, I love it and I must keep it.

12. Mad About The Boy by Maggie Alderson

Mad About The Boy - Maggie Alderson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I turn to Mad About The Boy every time I need unadulterated, delightful fun – that’s why my copy looks so well-loved, it has been! It surprises me how few people seem to have heard of this brilliant book. For me, it’s up there with the popular-fiction classics – think Lauren Weisberger, Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes. It’s a comedy that stems from tragedy; a British transplant to Sydney finds herself suddenly single when her otherwise-perfect husband comes out of the closet. With the help of a martial arts guru, her indefatigable son, and a fabulous visiting Uncle, she finds herself and a whole lot of fun along the way.

13. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Madame Bovary has been translated into English a bunch of times, but this version is my absolute favourite. I read it and loved it, but when I looked for the name of the person who had worked so hard on the translation, I couldn’t see it anywhere. Not on the cover, not in the prefatory materials, not even on the publisher’s website. My favourite line – “In certain moods, she needed little encouragement to go quite wild. One day she maintained against her husband that she could drink a tumbler of brandy, and as Charles was foolish enough to dare her to it, she drained it to the last drop.” – doesn’t actually appear in any translation other than this anonymous one. That alone earns it a spot in my Kondo 30.

14. Milkman by Anna Burns

Milkman - Anna Burns - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I started reviewing books in earnest, and thus paying attention to who won the Booker Prize, the same year that Anna Burns won for Milkman. On a lark, I entered a competition run by a beloved local bookstore (Better Read Than Dead), a giveaway of the entire 2018 Booker Prize shortlist, including the winner. I actually won, and picking up this stack of brand-new buzzy books was better than Christmas. I felt like the luckiest booklover in the world – still do, to be honest! It would be silly to take up near half of my Kondo 30 with the whole shortlist, but I had to keep just one, if just to hold onto the feeling of winning. So, the winner seemed apt!

15. My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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

Do I bang on about this book too much? Well, so be it, I bang on about this book too much. I don’t think it’s possible to over-hype My Year Of Rest And Relaxation, though. Moshfegh’s book has it all: a despicable but compelling narrator, a kooky supporting cast, an impossibly intriguing premise (deciding to sleep for a whole year), and a setting that will send chills up your spine (New York, through most of 2001…). I don’t think I could part with this book, purely for the number of times I refer back to it – in conversation, and here on this blog!

16. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nineteen Eighty-Four is like the ever-giving tree, the always-alarmingly-resonant dystopia that seems plucked from the day’s headlines, no matter when you read it. I’m particularly attached to this copy, which my father gifted to me at the tender age of thirteen. I credit this book with my political awakening, with my interest in domestic politics, and my personal investment in holding government to account. Sales of this book spiked during the Trump era, and it’s little wonder why; Orwell was disturbingly prescient, and forewarned is forearmed after all. Still, it’s more than a catch-phrase or a collation of clever ideas – it’s also a damn good read!

17. No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But The Mountains - Behrouz Boochani - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Australia’s treatment of refugees is a source of constant shame (to those of us with a conscience, anyway). Behrouz Boochani is happily and safely settled in New Zealand now, but at the time of writing No Friend But The Mountains (entirely via WhatsApp messages, on a smuggled smart phone, to his translator Omid Tofighian) he was detained on Manus Island, an “offshore detention centre” (i.e., prison) for refugees who come to Australia by boat. It was my immense honour and privilege to hear Boochani and Tofighian speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (Boochani by video link), and Tofighian was kind enough to speak with me and sign this book afterwards. My copy of No Friend But The Mountains is a crucial reminder of the best and worst of humanity.

18. On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In my household, which consists of two adults of the literary bent with four-and-a-half university degrees between us, books about writing are a given. We’ve got the swanky Cambridge ones and the stalwarts of James Wood and his ilk, but to my mind, the most wonderfully accessible and re-readable is On Writing by Stephen King. The other books might teach me never to end a sentence with a preposition, and never end a short story with “but it was all a dream”, but it’s King’s memoir-slash-manual that motivates me to actually put my bum in the chair and write. It’s full of advice, insight, and even reading recommendations – a must for my Kondo 30 library.

19. Parenthetical Bodies by Alex Gallagher

Parenthetical Bodies - Alex Gallagher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alex Gallagher was one of the first poets I saw read live when I started attending poetry events in Sydney. I still remember the poky little gallery we gathered in (remember gatherings? weren’t they fun??) and I remember their little wry smile as they read surfs up, a poem I later saw them describe on Twitter as a “filler piece” they wrote for the collection Paranthetical Bodies. If their “filler” is good enough to persuade me to purchase their whole collection, just imagine how good their good shit is! These are the poems that will make you laugh and cry and scratch your head, all at the same time.

20. Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There are few books I gush about as much as I gush about Rabbits For Food. I have thrust it into the hands of just about everyone I know. It was one of my best reads of the shitstorm of a year that was 2020. Kirshenbaum’s sense of humour slots in with mine like two jigsaw pieces: dark, sharp, and (at times) unnerving. You wouldn’t think that a book about a mental collapse and time spent in a psychiatric facility could have me howling with laughter, weeping tears of mirth, but here we are. I’d want to keep this book for two main reasons: so that it’s in reach whenever I need a laugh, and to remind me that even in the shittiest years, you can always find a really great book. Read my full review of Rabbits For Food here.

21. She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When I first picked up She Said, by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, I thought I already knew the Harvey Weinstein story. I’d followed it on Twitter and the major mastheads like everybody else. I’d scrolled through the names of actresses and assistants who had come forward, and shook my head about how dreadful it all was. This book showed me just how little I actually knew, and how much deeper it all goes. The lengths that Weinstein and his team (let alone the damn patriarchy) went to keep the story under wraps are jaw-dropping. This is the book that, for me, defines the #MeToo movement, and warrants regular re-visiting even as “times change”. Read my full review of She Said here.

22. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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

Here’s a little-known fun fact: The Bell Jar is almost impossible to find in secondhand bookstores (in my neck of the woods, anyway). You’d think that such stores would be teeming with pre-loved copies of this enduring modern classic, but no – hen’s teeth! It would seem that readers love Plath’s novel so much that they refuse to part with their copies, and I understand the impulse. I certainly wouldn’t part with mine! Not only is it gorgeous (a beautiful Faber hard-back with embossed gold cover), but it was a thank you gift from dear friends of mine for some long-forgotten favour. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

23. The Fabulous Girl’s Guide To Decorum by Kim Izzo & Ceri Marsh

The Fabulous Girl's Guide To Decorum - Kim Izzo and Ceri Marsh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I don’t care if it makes me a basic bitch: The Fabulous Girl’s Guide To Decorum has answered (almost) all of my questions about adulting. Admittedly, it’s perhaps a little dated now – written back in the day when text messaging was the peak of the technological communication revolution – but (almost) all of its lessons still ring true. When you crash in someone’s spare room for a night, what’s the polite way to thank them? How much should you tip when you’re in a foreign country? When you accidentally drink too much at the office Christmas party, how can you reassume your dignity and keep your job? Sure, you could probably Google the answers to all of these questions, but I appreciate having them all in one place on my bookshelf, right where I can see ’em.

24. The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)

The Odyssey - Homer - trans Emily Wilson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m still wading into the world of really old poems, but even I know about The Odyssey – Homer’s epic tale of war and love, wealth and poverty, travel and homecoming. I’d never read it, but I’d got the gist. Then, I heard an interview with Emily Wilson, and I just knew that I wanted her version to be the one to pop my cherry. In the millennia since it was first written, Wilson’s is the first translation from the original Greek to contemporary English completed and published by a woman. Can you believe that? How could we have let the blokes run the show for so long? I searched long and hard for this particular edition, and eventually treated myself to a brand new copy – and I won’t be parting with it any time soon.

25. The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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

I’ll admit, I didn’t love my last foray into Hemingway’s work, and you’re welcome to take my copy of The Sun Also Rises and do what you will with it. That said, I’m not ready to give up on Papa just yet. I’d been curious about his last novel, The Old Man In The Sea, notoriously short and weird, for a long time, but never found a copy that was pretty enough to feature on my #bookstagram. Then, when I visited my family (remember when we could visit family? how great was that?!), I was charged with looking through my now-passed grandparents’ book collection and picking out anything of interest. There it was, the Hemingway I’d been looking for, a gorgeous vintage hardback that will now stay in the family forever.

26. The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

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

Speaking of old men: there’s one who captured my heart a long time ago – Allan Karlsson, the vodka-swilling centenarian Swede from Jonas Jonasson’s The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared. This is my ultimate cheer-up read, the book I pass to friends who are having a hard time, the one I pick up myself when things get rough. Never have I encountered a character so endearing, undertaking adventures that are simultaneously unreal and totally believable, as I have in this beautiful book. It would make me cry to part with it, which in turn would make me think I need cheering up and I would automatically reach for it… you get my drift. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

27. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Fredrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this book changed my life. It was the first book my (now) husband ever loaned me. When we first started dating, we didn’t have a whole lot in common: he was a bartender, I was working for a bank, he was chronically late, I was always early, he rarely left his neighbourhood, I flew back and forth across the country every couple of weeks for work… and yet, what we always shared was a love of books, and an inclination to talk about them in depth. It all began with his loaning me this tattered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I must keep this book, if only to keep the memories of that early courtship fresh when I’m sick of picking up his dirty socks and listening to his shitty music.

28. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes, a book sets the bar so high it seems impossible any other could ever top it. That’s the case with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and plot twists. This was the first book for which I ever offered a proper spoiler warning here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I just couldn’t bring myself to ruin the genuine shock and awe that comes around page 70. It makes it hard to talk about this book, but damn if I don’t give it a red-hot go. I’ve recommended this book every which way I can, and you’ll pry my copy from my cold dead hands. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.

29. American Sniper by Chris Kyle

American Sniper - Chris Kyle - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ugh. I hated American Sniper. One star. If I could give no stars, I would. I cannot recall a single redeeming quality about it. So… why on earth would I keep it? Well, technically, technically, I borrowed it from a friend of mine, about five years ago. He’s never asked for it back, and he lives 870km away (that’s about 540 miles for you American Keeper Upperers), so opportunities to offer to give it back have been slim. Still, if he ever asked for it back, I must have it to hand to give to him. Throwing out your own books is one thing, but throwing out a borrowed book is an unforgivable offence. Read my full review of American Sniper here.

30. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, one last sappy one to round out my Kondo 30: The Girl On The Train. It was okay, I didn’t love it, but I do love the memory of how I bought it – at a poky little secondhand bookshop I discovered while desperately searching for a public bathroom on my honeymoon. It was one of those wonderful coincidences, stumbling across an English-language secondhand bookshop in the middle of nowhere, that are unlikely to come around more than once or twice in a lifetime. I still remember jiggling my leg in a gotta-pee dance while scanning the shelves for titles of interest, sure that if we left without buying anything we’d never be able to find it again. Ah, memories! Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

Which books would you keep for your Kondo 30? What do you think of my choices? Let me know in the comments!

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue – Melanie Benjamin

Whenever I find a book I really love, I find myself becoming curious about the author’s life off the page. That’s what drew me to The Swans Of Fifth Avenue (that, and a long-ago recommendation on a podcast, though I can’t remember which one – darn it, I really need to start writing these down!). In this historical fiction novel, Melanie Benjamin tells the story of how Truman Capote infiltrated, and then betrayed, the socialites of Manhattan’s upper-est echelons. After the riotous success of In Cold Blood, he found himself in need of a story, so he befriended the Ladies Who Lunch and then used their lives as fodder. Yes, that really happened, and Benjamin wrote a novel about it!

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue - Melanie Benjamin - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Swans Of Fifth Avenue Here.
(When you use an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission – not quite enough to make me story-worthy for Capote, but I appreciate it all the same!)

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is exactly what you’d hope of a novel about 1950s New York high society: heavy on the sparkle and scandal, the gossip and glitz. This is back when literature was still glamorous and everyone knew everyone (worth knowing). Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wharton all get name-checked in the very first chapter.

Babe Paley is the Queen Bee of the socialite “Swans”. She’s a press darling, wealthy beyond measure, and transcendent with beauty. By any account, she “has it all”… so, of course, she’s secretly miserable. Her friends are phony, her husband a philanderer, and her material world is lacking any true love or respect.

Along comes Truman Capote, an impish gay (i.e., non-threatening) writer on the come up. He catches a ride on Babe’s private jet (well, her husband’s, and he – in fairness – was expecting “Truman” the former president, not “Truman” the cheeky ink slinger). Capote and Babe recognise each other as kindred spirits and become instant friends.

Babe brings Capote into her glittering world almost as soon as they land. She introduces him to all of the Swans, and before long they’re trading gossip and going on shopping sprees and getting snapped by the paps on the street. Babe entrusts Capote with her deepest, darkest secrets about her sexless marriage and search for meaning. (Spoiler alert: BIG mistake! Big! HUGE!)

Capote is quickly revealed to be a mischievous (at best) or malevolent (at worst) liar. He tells different versions of the same story: to Babe, he says his childhood was dreadful, but to Slim (her best friend, the brassiest Swan) he says that it was wonderful. He smiles and nods at acquaintances in restaurants, only to savage them to all who’ll listen as soon as they leave the room. He comes across as a pernicious little twit, but undeniably great fun to have over for dinner. One thing I did note as I was reading The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is that Capote is portrayed as a lot more boyish and vulnerable than he has been in other fictionalised versions of his life – I’m thinking mainly of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in the film Capote. Only towards the end of the book did he morph into the bloated, desperate alcoholic that’s more familiar to me.

The publication of In Cold Blood is the turning point in his career, and his relationships with the Swans. Basically, Capote gets real high off his own fumes, and it’s not a graceful comedown. After the success of his true crime novel, and the big party he throws to celebrate his own triumph, he struggles to write anything that he feels comes close to the expectations (that he has stoked) of his adoring public and publishers. Lacking any other muses, he writes La Cote Basque, 1965: a very, very thinly veiled short story about one Lady Ina Coolbirth and her high-society friends at brunch. “The characters” trade stories and gossip about, oh, I don’t know, sexless philandering husbands and squalid one night stands.

Capote thinks he’s been very clever and literary, of course, but his delusion is shattered upon publication. All of his friends recognise themselves immediately – one socialite actually takes her own life after reading the story – and Capote is blacklisted. All of the glitz and glamour is torn away from him, and he can’t even get his former best friends to pick up the phone when he calls. It’s a tragic fall from grace, but one that feels very deserved.

Of course, the constant distraction of reading any novelisation of a true story is always present in The Swans Of Fifth Avenue: how much of it is true? (The same could be said of Capote’s work, ahem!) Benjamin addresses this in her author’s note:

“All of [this book’s] characters were incurable liars in life. This gave me quite a lot of leeway… All conversations are imagined, although some—like the conversation between Truman Capote and Liz Smith near the end—are known to have occurred… The timeline is faithful. The fallout from Answered Prayers is true to life. The relationships are real; in other words, Truman and Babe and Bill Paley were that tight little trio; Slim was Babe’s closest female friend… The emotions are what I imagine; the motivations and intent behind some of these documented acts. The facts are the bones upon which I stretch the fictionalised flesh.”

Author’s note (The Swans Of Fifth Avenue)

I was really grateful to her for providing this context – though maybe putting them in a foreword would have made it easier to focus on the fun imagined elements throughout, instead of stopping to Google each new character as they were introduced.

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is highly readable, the same way that Prosecco is highly drinkable on a sunny afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed this delicious gossipy take on Capote’s misdeeds. Perhaps it could’ve been a little leaner, a little meaner, but it was great fun to read as it is. I’d recommend this one if you’re in the mood escape to a past when there were no Instagram or Twitter accounts letting the rich and fabulous “control their own narratives”.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Swans Of Fifth Avenue:

  • “I was lured in to read ‘The Swans of Fifth Avenue’ by the subject and I expected some interesting and intriguing insights into the world of 1950s coming-of-age television and book publishing, with a tidbit or two, or 20, of the intertwining of Manhattan’s rich and famous, most notably Babe Paley and Truman Capote. That was not the case and this was certainly the wrong book for me to read at the end of life-sucking 2020. The key “swan” characters were an insipid group of self-important, vapid, whining gazillionaires with first-world problems that are common and trite.” – Cindy
  • “Mostly a story following Truman Capote and his “Swans”. He was a strange little man..” – Lisa Christian
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