Novellas in November, Part 1: 3 Fiction, 3 Nonfiction

This is my third year of prioritizing novellas for my November reading. I have plenty more on the go that I’ll try to write up as the month progresses. For this first installment I review three each of my recent fiction and nonfiction reads, all of them 150 pages or fewer.

Fiction:

 

Lady into Fox by David Garnett (1922)

[53 pages]

I accidentally did things the wrong way round: a few months back I read Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, which includes the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 winner “Mrs Fox,” clearly modeled on Garnett’s half-charming, half-horrible fable. In both, an upper-middle-class marriage is derailed when the wife turns into a fox. Here Mr. Tebrick sends away the servants and retreats from the world to look after Silvia, who grows increasingly feral. To start with the vixen will wear clothing, sleep in a bed, play cards and eat table scraps, but soon she’s hunting birds outdoors. Before long she’s effectively a wild creature, though she still shows affection to Tebrick when he comes to visit her den.

Anyone in a partnership will experience a bittersweet sense of recognition at how Tebrick and Silvia try to accommodate each other’s differences and make compromises to maintain a relationship in defiance of the world’s disapproval and danger. Beware unsentimental animal peril throughout. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.  

 

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952)

[99 pages]

It’s a wonder I never read this Pulitzer winner in high school. Like that other syllabus favorite, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, it’s a Great American novella praised for spare prose and weighty symbolism. My two decades’ worth of preconceptions were proven accurate insomuch as this is a gloomy story about the nobility but ultimate futility of human striving. After 84 days without a catch, Santiago returns to the waters off of Havana and finally gets a bite. Even after the harrowing process of reeling in the 18-foot marlin, his struggle isn’t over.

This is my third experience with Hemingway’s fiction; I remain unconvinced. I appreciated some of the old man’s solitary ruminations on purpose and determination – “My big fish must be somewhere,” “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is” – though they sound rather like sound bites. And I kept almost falling asleep while reading this (until the sharks showed up), which almost never happens. Take that as you will.

 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

[149 pages]

It’s the late 1980s and teenager Silvie Hampton and her parents have joined a university-run residential archaeology course in the North of England, near bogs where human sacrifice once took place. Her father is a Rochdale-area bus driver, but British prehistory is his all-consuming hobby. They’ll skin rabbits with stone tools and forage for roots and berries. What could be better?! As it turns out, it’s a stifling summer, and the students can’t sneak off to civilization often enough. Mocked for her family’s accent, Silvie is uncomfortably aware of her class. And, always, she must tread carefully to avoid angering her father, who punishes perceived offenses with his belt or his fists.

Women’s bodies and what can be done to them is central; as the climax approaches, the tricksy matter of consent arises. Though I enjoyed Silvie’s sarcastic voice, I was underwhelmed for much of the book, yet ended up impressed by how much is conveyed in so few pages. If you haven’t read anything by Sarah Moss, do so immediately.

 

 

Nonfiction:

 

Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away by Victor Lee Austin (2016)

[146 pages]

Austin, an Episcopal priest and academic, met his wife Susan at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was his companion for nearly 40 years. Unusually for a cancer story, it wasn’t the beginning of the end when Susan was diagnosed with an astrocytoma brain tumor in 1993; surgery was successful and she lived for another 19 years, but white-matter disease, a side effect of radiation, meant that her brain function was continually diminishing.

The book gives a clear sense of Susan’s personality despite the progression of her illness, and of the challenges of being a caregiver while holding down a career. I enjoyed the details of the human story of coping with suffering, but in overlaying a spiritual significance on it Austin lost me somewhat. “God, who had given us so much, now gave us this evil,” he writes. While once this kind of language would have meant something to me, now it alienates me. I valued this more as a straightforward bereavement memoir than as a theological treatise.

 

The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel (2017)

[84 pages]

“There is something about owls. More than any other family of birds they produce a reaction in us, and have done so across time and continents.” Some species-specific natural/cultural histories can be long-winded, giving significantly more information than your averagely interested lay reader needs (Foxes Unearthed, for instance), but Lewis-Stempel’s short book about Britain’s owls gets it just right.

He gives some general information about the family, surveys the native species and occasional visitors, gives tips for telling them apart – I’m going to photograph a page on the difference between the five major species’ pellets for future reference – and shares legends and poems that feature owls (including a jaunty little Tennyson piece that reads like a folk song; I’ll suggest that my husband turn it into one). The black-and-white illustrations by Beci Kelly are charming, too. It’s a shame I missed this when it first came out, but it would still make a great gift for a bird lover this Christmas.

 

Pages from a Nature-Lover’s Diary by Kathleen A. Renninger (2013)

[72 pages]

These are lovely excerpts from nature sketchbooks Renninger kept between 1987 and 2013. My mother bought the self-published book from the author at a craft fair, and I enjoyed spotting lots of familiar place names from southern central Pennsylvania, where my mother and sister used to live. In the past I’ve unfairly considered the area devoid of natural beauty, but it’s clear from Renninger’s encounters that the wildlife is out there if you’re patient and lucky enough to find it – mostly birds and insects, but even larger mammals like foxes and bears.

IMG_3551Many of her sightings are by chance: near her feeders or clothesline, or while driving past fields or down a residential street. Each month ends with a poem; these are slightly florid, but so earnest that they won me over. There are plentiful punctuation issues and the cursive font is a challenge to read, but the captured moments and the sense of the seasons’ passing make for a sweet book I’d recommend to anyone with a local interest.

 

 

Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

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34 thoughts on “Novellas in November, Part 1: 3 Fiction, 3 Nonfiction

  1. Some good recommendations there. Thank you! I love Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and still think it’s one of the best examples of the novella form. Papa can keep his Old Man. I’ve never been able to get into Hemingway either, and there’s just too much good stuff out there to worry about it! A writer on Twitter recently declared this the renaissance of the novella. I hope so; I think it’s such a wonderful form!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I loved Ghost Wall more than you but I’m delighted to see you urging everyone to read Moss! I think I need to get a copy of The Secret Life of the Owl given that I often hear several chatting to each other in the woods not far from our house.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of his fiction I’ve also read For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises. He’s the favourite author of one of the ladies in my book club (!), and she wants to have us read The Garden of Eden. Hmm…

      I loved Hall’s story. Shockingly, I can’t remember how hers ended even though I only read it a few months ago. I’m terrible at forgetting endings, even whodunit.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I would say the same. I read The Old Man and the Sea (not at school, my parents had a copy), but wasn’t very impressed. Then some years later I discovered the audiobook of For Whom the Bell Tolls narrated by Campbell Scott and have been recommending it to everyone ever since. I take it with me every time I do a long haul flight from Australia to Europe and I never tired of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. GHOST WALL, GHOST WAAAAAALL. I love it so. (Oddly, The Old Man and the Sea is one of the two Hemingways I’ve found remotely bearable. The fabular quality of it seemed to work, and I remember writing an essay that made much—probably too much—of the novella’s Christian symbolism, so there was obviously something there that interested me. It’s been years, though.)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I was surprised by how much I liked The Old Man and the Sea – maybe because I was assuming it would be so boring? My Dad read one of his books last year and couldn’t believe it had even been published. It was funny to hear him describe it.
    I’d like to read Ghost Wall – a good, quick way to try out one of Sarah Moss’s books!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it would be a great first one of her books to try. I don’t know how easy her work is to find in Canada, but I know Ghost Wall is being published in the States. Signs for Lost Children is my favourite of hers, followed by The Tidal Zone.

      Like

  5. I read that Hemingway when I was trying to put a dent in my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Did list. It hasn’t really stuck with me, I liked The Sun Also Rises a lot more. I haven’t read Sarah Moss but this is very persuasive!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a pleasing combination of styles and subjects. I don’t have any short non-fiction in my stack for #novnov but I’m enjoying what I’ve been reading for it so far (a Mavis Gallant novella and the Jon McGregor adjunct to the Reservoir 13 story). There’s something delightful about being able to read an entire work in a single sitting, even when you are usually a dabbler! (I’ve travelled through Pennsylvania many times and always though it was quite like the countryside in which I grew up – lovely).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So far I’ve read (most of) just one of my novellas in one sitting … all the rest have been at my usual 10 or 20 pages here and there.

      Not many people know Pennsylvania well! It’s tempting to call it boring, but it does have a couple of major cities and some pleasant countryside. I went to summer camp in the Amish country for a number of years when I was growing up.

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