Seven Final Novellas: Crumley, Morris, Rapp Black; Hunter, Johnson, Josipovici, Otsuka (#NovNov)

We’ll be wrapping up Novellas in November and giving final statistics on Tuesday. Today, I have mini reviews of another seven novellas I’ve been working on, some of them for the whole month. I’ll start with some short nonfiction and then move on to the fiction.

 

Nonfiction:

Barn Owl by Jim Crumley (2014)

[63 pages]

I reviewed Kingfisher and Otter, two other titles from Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, earlier in the month. Barn Owl follows the same pattern, traveling the Scottish islands in search of close encounters (with badgers and ospreys, too) but also stretching back to a childhood memory from 1950s Dundee, when there was an owl-occupied derelict farmstead a quarter-mile from his home. This is a lovely little full-circle narrative in that the book closes with “the barn owl, unlike all other night-flying owls, is the one that we can see in the dark … its inarguable beauty is layered with mystery, and …all of us have a place in our hearts and minds for mysterious beauty. I have known that to be an essential truth since I was about eight years old.” (Public library)

 

Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)

[148 pages]

A reread of a book that transformed my understanding of gender back in 2006. Morris (d. 2020) was a trans pioneer. Her concise memoir opens “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” Sitting under the family piano, little James knew it, but it took many years – a journalist’s career, including the scoop of the first summiting of Mount Everest in 1953; marriage and five children; and nearly two decades of hormone therapy – before a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972 physically confirmed it. I was struck this time by Morris’s feeling of having been a spy in all-male circles and taking advantage of that privilege while she could. She speculates that her travel books arose from “incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.” The focus is more on her unchanging soul than on her body, so this is not a sexual tell-all. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward true identity and there is only joy at new life rather than regret at time wasted in the ‘wrong’ one. (Public library)

 

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black (2021)

[145 pages]

This was my third memoir by the author; I reviewed The Still Point of the Turning World and Sanctuary earlier in the year. Like Sinéad Gleeson does in Constellations, Rapp Black turns to Frida Kahlo as a role model for “translating … pain into art.” Polio, a streetcar accident, 32 operations, failed pregnancies and an amputated leg – Kahlo endured much suffering. It was this last particular that especially drew Rapp Black (who has had a prosthetic leg since early childhood) to her. On a visit to Kahlo’s Mexico City home, she can hardly bear the intimacy of seeing Kahlo’s prostheses and corsets. They plunge her back into her own memories: of passing as normal despite a disability, having an eating disorder, losing her son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease, and starting over with a new marriage and baby. Rapp Black weaves this all together artfully as well as effectively, but for someone like me who is already conversant with her story, there wasn’t quite enough in the way of new material.

With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free e-copy for review.

  

Fiction:

These first two ended up having a major arc in common: desperate preservation of key family relationships against the backdrop of a believably falling-apart near-future world.

 

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017)

[127 pages]

A woman, her partner (R), and their baby son flee a flooded London in search of a place of safety, traveling by car and boat and camping with friends and fellow refugees. “How easily we have got used to it all, as though we knew what was coming all along,” she says. Her baby, Z, tethers her to the corporeal world. What actually happens? Well, on the one hand it’s very familiar if you’ve read any dystopian fiction; on the other hand it is vague because characters only designated by initials are hard to keep straight and the text is in one- or two-sentence or -paragraph chunks punctuated by asterisks (and dull observations): “Often, I am unsure whether something is a bird or a leaf. *** Z likes to eat butter in chunks. *** We are overrun by mice.” etc. It’s touching how Z’s early milestones structure the book, but for the most part the style meant this wasn’t my cup of tea. (Secondhand purchase)

 

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (2021)

[For novella only: 182 pages?]

Pick this up right away if you loved Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections. After “the unraveling,” Da’Naisha and fellow escapees from racial violence in Charlottesville – including her former and current boyfriends, the one Black and the other white; and her ailing grandmother, MaViolet – shelter at Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate. At first they stay by the visitor’s center, but as weeks pass and they fear a siege, they retreat to the mansion itself. Da’Naisha, our narrator, becomes the de facto leader of the motley crew, spearheading a trip out for supplies. She harbors two major secrets, one about her heritage and one about her future. Although this is a bit too similar to Parable of the Sower, against which I judge just about any dystopian fiction, the setting and timeliness can’t be beat. I read the U.S. ebook edition, which includes five short stories that also explore race issues and employ the first person plural and second person to good effect; “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” encapsulated my whole autumn mood. (Read via Edelweiss)

 

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (2018)

[101 pages]

After reviewing Josipovici’s 100 Days earlier in the month, I wanted to get a taste of his fiction. The protagonist is a translator who has lived in London, Paris and now rural Wales. He’s been married twice but, whatever his living situation, he’s always prized the solitude and routine he needs for his work. Passages from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo and Joachim du Bellay’s poetry – in the original language, sometimes but not always translated for us – drift through the novella, which also prioritizes the sort of repeated phrases that constitute a long-cohabitating couple’s domestic vocabulary. References to cemeteries and to du Bellay’s Regrets are hints of something hasn’t isn’t being revealed to us up front. I think I worked out what it was. Clever and interesting, but I’d like a bit more grounding detail. A favorite line: “for one’s life not living up to expectation there is no excuse, except for the paltry one that this is true of everybody’s life.” (University library)

 

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)

[145 pages]

Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese mail order brides in early 1900s San Francisco, was one of my first encounters with the first person plural, which I’ve come to love. It also serves as a prequel to this, her debut novel. In Berkeley, California in 1942, a Japanese man is arrested as a potential enemy combatant. His wife, son and daughter are given just a matter of days to pack their things and evacuate to an internment camp in the desert. Otsuka takes us along on the train journey and to the camp, where small moments rather than climactic ones reveal the children’s sadness and the injustice of what they’re missing out on. I most enjoyed the last section, when they all return to their home after over three years away and start to piece life back together. I’d already read a few novels featuring Japanese internment (e.g. The Japanese Lover and Snow Falling on Cedars) but, more than that, Otsuka’s writing is a tad too subtle for me. (Secondhand purchase)

 

In total, I read 29 novellas this November – a new record for me! I didn’t set out to read the equivalent of nearly one per day, but it happened to pan out like that. Some of my selections were very short indeed, at under 100 pages; multiple volumes of Garfield comics also helped. Three were 5-star reads: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy plus two rereads, Conundrum by Jan Morris (above) and our classics buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

 

I also had a couple of DNFs:

Gone by Michael Blencowe: (45 pages) I made a second attempt on this essay collection about extinct species this month. Maybe I’ve just read too much around the topic recently. (Review copy)

Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner: (50 pages) I loved the idea of a novella about a neurosurgeon, but mostly this concerns Nick’s fatness and his family members’ various dysfunctions. (New purchase)

22 responses

  1. […] Seven Final Novellas: Crumley, Morris, Rapp Black; Hunter, Johnson, Josipovici, Otsuka […]

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  2. Gosh you did so well. I am still reading one and have 4 others to review, but will have read 10 in total I think, plus my roundups from the archives. Really enjoyed #NovNov – thank you for hosting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s tremendous! Your archive posts were a great way to highlight some older reads. We really appreciate all you contributed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! 29 novellas in a month. Good going!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t quite believe it when I totted them all up. Compared to all the options I’d stacked up, I felt I’d barely made a dent.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well done! I have just written my review of number 14, out later today, then there will be one more tomorrow I hope. 15 in a 30-day month feels nice and tidy to me! I have read the Otsuka and found it harrowing (short review from 2005: https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2005/12/03/julie-otsuka-when-the-emperor-was-divine/ ) and I haven’t read the Morris for so long and feel I need to read it again. Good work and thank you for a lovely month!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastic! It’s been a very successful (and busy) month. The Morris was just as good as a reread. I hope to read her posthumous book soon; just awaiting my library hold.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. After hearing both yourself and Susan recommend My Monticello, it’s straight on my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d love it.

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  6. […] Seven Final Novellas: Crumley, Morris, Rapp Black; Hunter, Johnson, Josipovici, Otsuka (Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]

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  7. Your non-fiction choices in particular look tempting. Because of this challenge, I have myself read several novellas this month recommended by various bloggers. So next year … I’d better join in.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Assuming I finish today’s, I also read 29 novellas in November! Well, a couple of them probably are too long, but I read them in one day each anyway, so I’m counting it 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brilliant! Thanks so much for all of your reviews.

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  9. I am an end-of-November denier! I’ve read a lot, reviewed nothing and haven’t finished everything I started, hence I will have an #NovNov logjam that will extend into December. At the very least, I shall attempt to post a list today. And I had such great intentions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You managed a very respectable haul! I, too, have the problem of starting lots of books and then flitting between them such that they take me an inordinately long time. But I do eventually finish most of them. It’s nice to slip in lots of shorter reads towards the end of a year. Whether or not you keep a strict count of your books read, polishing off lots gives a feeling of accomplishment.

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  10. That’s an amazing number of novellas, Rebecca. I’ve read three novellas thanks to you and Cathy – one fantasy/horror, one sci-fi, and one romance! I enjoyed all three. I will write a little but about them probably in my next post this weekend. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. My Monticello and The Cost of Living have been added to my list!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] Conundrum by Jan Morris: Morris was a trans pioneer; this transformed my understanding of gender when I first read it in 2006. Born James, Morris knew by age four that she was really a girl. A journalism career, marriage, five children, and two decades of hormone therapy preceded sex reassignment surgery. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward her true identity. […]

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  13. It’s funny that you read so many and, yet, are mostly surprised by how many are STILL in the stack, unread. #relatable

    My Monticello is the only one I’ve read recently (I read Conundrum years ago, before I was reliably logging the books I read). I loved the idea of it and was definitely keen to see what happened. I wanted everything to turn out okay for their small group…

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