Tag: Abigail Thomas

All the Books I’ve Abandoned So Far This Year

I abandon about 15% of the books I start. I try not to go on too much about the books I don’t finish, partially because a DNF still feels like something of a failure on my part (to choose the right book; to stick with what I’ve started) and partially because a book blog would ideally be a place where you just wax lyrical on the books that you love. But every time I have written abandoned books posts they have been absurdly popular, so if you need encouragement to ditch the books that aren’t working out for you right now, do take this as my blessing!

If there are books on my list that you have finished and loved, I’d be glad to hear from you. Equally, if there are some here that you also abandoned, do reassure me that I’m not totally off base. I know I can be inconsistent in how I deal with DNFs: how many pages I give them, how much I write about them, and whether I choose to rate them. If I feel I gave a book enough of a try to know what I would have thought of it overall, I go ahead and rate it. Others will almost certainly think that this is unfair to the author and their hard work. Thoughts?

These are in chronological order of my attempted reads, with the pages or percentages read in parentheses. I’ve omitted any books I’ve already written about on the blog.

 

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park: This is the second time I’ve been seduced by Park’s amazing-sounding plots – the blurb for this one and The Poets’ Wives are ever so appealing – but ended up unable to engage with them. Here, not one of the characters interested me. Park’s writing is noteworthy, but a bit belabored: there are more words and images there than you really need to make the point (“The solace he tried to take in his intellectual superiority was thinning in spiteful synchronicity with the thinning of his hair”; “in this game, intensity or passion were the illegitimate children of commitment”). (32 pp.)

 

Census by Jesse Ball: I’d enjoyed Ball’s previous novel, How to Start a Fire and Why. This one is very different, though – probably closer to his usual style, based on accounts I’ve read from others. It’s strange, dreamy, and philosophical. With its flat, simple, repetitive language; short sentences and paragraphs; and no speech marks, it is fable-like and oblique, and altogether hard to latch onto. The author opens by saying this is a tribute to his brother, who had Down’s syndrome and died 20 years ago. But in the portion that I read, the character with Down’s syndrome has no apparent presence or personality. People who like dystopian allegories (Saramago and the like?) may well enjoy this, but it wasn’t for me. (10%) 

 

Exodus: A Memoir by Deborah Feldman: A memoir about a woman’s loss of faith – here, that involved leaving her marriage and her Hasidic Jewish community – should be right up my alley, but I had trouble connecting with Feldman’s voice. I didn’t sense honest wrestling, just hipster angst. Should I bother trying her previous memoir, Unorthodox? (20 pp.)

 

Tender by Belinda McKeon: I could relate to Catherine, an awkward and initially unconfident university student who doesn’t know what she’s good at. Perhaps because I’ve never had close male friends, though, I found it harder to understand her intimate friendship with James. I liked their snappy conversations, but the run-on nature of the narration was slightly off-putting. I would try other work by McKeon, or possibly even give this one another go some years in the future. (140 pp.) 

 

The Man on the Middle Floor by Elizabeth S. Moore: Initially I enjoyed the first-person voice of Nick, who is on the autism spectrum and relies on careful weekly schedules and lists of rules of how the world works to fit in. However, the second section featuring him is ill-advised and damaging, branding ASD people as violent and horny. All really rather unpleasant, with two of the main characters walking stereotypes and undistinguished writing. (16 pp. plus some further skimming) 

 

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively: This is a gorgeous physical book, but inside it’s writing by numbers: It feels so stiff you can see how Lively filled in an outline. One chapter even ends with “This has been a discussion of the written garden”. Early chapters are on the history of gardens, gardens as metaphors, and gardens in literature (Vita Sackville-West, Elizabeth von Arnim, the Sitwells, et al.). I think you’d have to be much more of a gardening enthusiast than I am – I’m a lazy, frustrated amateur at best – to get a lot out of this. (79 pp.) 

 

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar: Gowar has an accomplished and knowing narrative voice, and the historical setting is totally convincing. But I didn’t get drawn into the story. A merchant unwittingly acquires a hideous fish-like creature and decides to make as much money from displaying it as he can. Meanwhile, a high-class madam decides she needs a new gentleman protector for one of her best whores. Given the title, I think I know what we can expect. The scenes set in the brothel particularly bored me, and the thought of another 350+ pages appalled me. (70 pp. plus some further skimming) 

 

Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam: I had been looking forward to this historical novel about a missionary marriage in the South Pacific. Unfortunately, I did not find it compelling in the least. Even the twist in the last line of the prologue was not enough to keep me reading. You might try Euphoria by Lily King instead. (6%)

 

Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley: I really enjoyed Part 1, which is about leaping into life, whatever that means for you. For her it was learning to swim, undertaking outdoor swimming challenges everywhere from her hometown of Brighton to Ithaca, Greece, but also getting married and undergoing IVF. I especially appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. But then it seems like her publishers said, “Meh, too short; add in more stuff!” and so we get the history of swimming, what gear you should buy, FAQs, etc. – boring! (Part 1) 

 

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu: We get a brief introduction to a set of nine- to eleven-year-old campers from the early 1990s on an isolated overnight adventure – they’re pretty hard to keep straight – before diving deep into one’s life for the next 20+ years. The long interlude means Fu doesn’t sustain suspense about whatever bad thing happened when the girls were campers. A disappointment after For Today I Am a Boy. (86 pp.) 

 

The Underneath by Melanie Finn: I requested this on the strength of Finn’s previous novel. Jumping between italicized passages set in Africa and Kay and Michael’s troubled marriage playing out its end in Vermont 10 years later, the narrative feels fragmented. Another strand is about Ben of Comeau Logging and his drug-addicted friend Shevaunne. It’s clear these subplots will meet up at some point, but I didn’t have the patience to hang around. There is a lot of gritty violence towards animals, too. (15 pp. plus some further skimming)

 

Carry On, Warrior: The real truth about being a woman by Glennon Melton: Melton was an alcoholic and bulimic for nearly 20 years until she found herself pregnant and cleaned up her act, fast. Her approach here is like a cross between Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Lamott: generically Christian encouragement to be your authentic self, do your best work, and choose love. But something about the voice grated, and the short essays felt repetitive. (37 pp.) 

 

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee: I should know by now that this is just the sort of book I hate: a spare, almost dystopian allegory that’s not rooted in time or place and whose characters are symbols you hardly care about. The Childhood of Jesus was similar. This starts off as Michael K’s quest to get his ailing mother to Prince Albert, but that’s very soon derailed, and with it my interest. (20 pp. plus some further skimming)

 

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer: Alas, I was 0 for 2 on South African Booker Prize winners. Nice landscape descriptions, but despite the discovery of a body there’s no narrative momentum, and one doesn’t warm to Mehring. My favorite passage, with ironically apt adjectives in bold, was “The upland serenity of high altitude, the openness of grassland without indigenous bush or trees … A landscape without theatricals except when it became an arena for summer storms … – a typical Transvaal landscape, that you either find dull and low-keyed or prefer to all others (they said).” (44 pp.)

 

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal: There’s nothing wrong with the book per se; I just wasn’t compelled to read more. Mona is a lonely 60-year-old who runs a toy shop in a seaside town and makes custom-designed dolls. There are some major losses in her past, at first just hints and then whole stories. In memory Mona can relive the limited moments she had with her loved ones. I could recommend this to fans of Rachel Joyce – the story line is particularly reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Snow Garden – but wonder if de Waal’s previous book would feel more original. (70 pp.) 

 

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe: I had a weird reverse case of déjà vu: this is awfully similar to Mad Men, Suzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch, and A.J. Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird, though of course they would have been based on Jaffe’s novel rather than the other way round. Caroline Bender, fresh out of a broken engagement, arrives for her first day as a typist at a New York City publishing house and has to adjust to catty office politics. I think I’ll enjoy this, but need to find another time when I can give it my full attention. (Ch. 1)

 

The Day that Went Missing: A Family Tragedy by Richard Beard: In August 1978, when the Beard family was on holiday at the beach in Cornwall, nine-year-old Nicholas was taken by the undertow and drowned. Eleven-year-old Richard was the last person to see him alive. He digs up evidence and stories of who Nicky was in his brief life and what exactly happened on that fateful day. The matter-of-fact, even cavalier, tone detracts from any potential emotional power. The other problem is there’s simply not very much to say about a nine-year-old and his rather average English family. (28 pp. plus some further skimming)

 

The Lido by Libby Page: The kindest word I could apply to the prose is “undemanding.” I’d hoped the charm of a story about a lonely twentysomething journalist and an octogenarian who band together to rescue their local swimming pool would outweigh the dull writing, but not so. Comparisons with Eleanor Oliphant didn’t fill me with confidence, either. (25 pp.) 

 

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: There’s a near-contemporary story line that’s not very compelling; while I enjoyed the 1980s strand about a group of gay friends in Chicago, there are a lot of secondary characters we don’t get to know very well, plus the details of Yale’s art deal slow down the narrative. I really wanted to appreciate the book more because I loved Makkai’s two previous novels so much, but I didn’t feel the impetus to continue. (50 pp. plus some further skimming) 

 

A Long Island Story by Rick Gekoski: I loved Darke, so jumped at the chance to read Gekoski’s second novel. I liked our introduction to mother Addie and father Ben, who works for the Department of Justice but has ambitions as a writer so stays up until all hours typing. They drive out with kids Becca and Jake one summer morning to Long Island to stay with Addie’s parents, Maurice and Perle, at their bungalow. I didn’t sense a lot of promise. It’s interesting to see in the acknowledgements that Gekoski originally tried writing this as a memoir of his 1950s childhood. I think that could have been much more interesting. (35 pp.)

 

An Actual Life by Abigail Thomas: Thomas writes terrific memoirs-in-essays, so I was intrigued to try her fiction. Nineteen-year-old Virginia got pregnant the first time she slept with Buddy; now she’s married to him and a stay-at-home mother to Madeline. This reads like a cheap knockoff of Anne Tyler, and the shortage of punctuation is maddening. (46 pp.) 

 

The Book of Salt by Monique Truong: I never warmed to the voice of Bình, the Vietnamese cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1930s Paris, nor was I interested enough in what I read about the “Mesdames” to continue getting to know them. I found the narration overwritten: “This language that I dip into like a dry inkwell has failed me. It has made me take flight with weak wings and watched me plummet into silence.” I couldn’t resist the terrific setup, but the delivery was ever so slightly dull. (31 pp.)

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A Saturday Jaunt to Bath

img_0875We heard that The Bookshop Band would be playing at a free seasonal concert on Saturday night, so on something of a whim we planned a daytrip to Bath. Even though it wasn’t exactly on the way (my husband’s regular, feeble refrain), I take any opportunity of being in the Bath/Bristol area to make a pilgrimage to Bookbarn International. This was a delightful surprise since I’d been in late July and never thought I’d get to go again this year.

This turned out to be our best trip yet. We were unrushed for once, so had plenty of time for browsing. I had particularly good luck in the orange-spined all-Penguins section, and even found three books I wanted from the “Unsorted” shelves, which was something of a miracle. We finally tried out their newish café and got a darned good cup of coffee and a cake each.

All told we came away with a better haul than on any previous visit: 13 books for me, 10 nature books plus a River Café cookbook for my husband, and eight books to give away as presents. And for all that (books + refreshments), less than £40. Add on a couple of books from a charity shop in Bath and I got some real steals – no book more than £1.

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I’m particularly pleased with:

  • Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde
  • Writers & Company, a collection of Canadian radio interviews with authors
  • A signed copy of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
  • An Actual Life by Abigail Thomas – I love her memoirs so have been looking forward to trying her fiction.

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Bath Abbey

This was my fifth trip to Bath, which was looking lovely and golden in the wintry afternoon light but was certainly bustling, to put it politely. More accurately, you could barely move through the main streets, particularly around the Christmas market. At one point we weren’t sure we were going to get any hot food for dinner – it had never occurred to us to book ahead, and the brasserie and pub we tried were both full. Luckily the Real Italian Pizza Co. had a table for two, and I enjoyed a gloriously doughy calzone before we headed up to St Swithin’s Church for a holiday concert featuring Songways Choir and The Bookshop Band.

St Swithin’s has had a church on site since the tenth century, a sort of age we Americans can barely get our heads round. Jane Austen’s parents married here; so did William Wilberforce. It was something of a bittersweet occasion because the couple who make up The Bookshop Band are moving to Wigtown, Scotland’s town of books, in January and expecting their first booklet in May. So this was most likely my last chance to see them for quite a while. They only played a mini-set of five songs after the choir performance. Most of these I’d heard before, but “Wagons and Wheels,” based on Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival (which I have on my Kindle and have been meaning to read), was new to me and a highlight.

Earlier in the evening we’d had a chance to stop by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, the independent bookshop in Bath where the band got their start. It’s such a cozy and welcoming shop, and I added a goodly number of books to my wish list while I was there. It’s something of a shame that we never got to see them perform in situ (though I don’t know how more than 20 people could fit in the upstairs space!), but I’ve managed to see them live three times and by funding their 2016 recording project have had excellent music streaming to my computer the whole year.


Thanks to last night’s holiday concert and the university carol service we’ll be attending tomorrow evening, I should certainly be feeling in the Christmas spirit. Look out for my two posts on seasonal reading coming up this week.

Picked up any secondhand bargains recently?

Are you feeling the Christmas spirit?

Landmark Books in My Life, Part II

This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote in September about the books that shaped my early life. I think of my twenties in general, and 2005–7 in particular, as a golden period in my reading life, when I started to develop the tastes that still guide my book choices today.


my-love-affairsixpence-houseI was an English and Religion major and studied abroad in England for my junior year in 2003–4. As I was getting ready to go overseas for that first time in the summer of 2003, Susan Allen Toth’s trilogy of travel memoirs, starting with My Love Affair with England, and Paul Collins’s Sixpence House whetted my appetite for travel in Great Britain and, in the case of the latter, made me determined to get to Hay-on-Wye, Wales as soon as I could. (I first visited in May 2004 and have gone back several times since.)

robert-elsmereOne of the most memorable books I read during my year abroad was Robert Elsmere by Mrs. Humphry Ward. It’s almost forgotten nowadays, but was a bestseller at its release in 1888. The story of a minister’s loss of faith and how it affects his marriage, it’s a stand-in for a whole faith-and-doubt subgenre that was wildly popular at the time. The novel is long, brooding and overwritten—in many ways it exemplifies the worst characteristics of the Victorian novel—but it resonated with my own crisis of faith and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction.

history-of-godPart of working through that ongoing crisis of faith was seeing other religions more objectively and being open to the similarities between them. I found Karen Armstrong’s comparative study of the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), A History of God, absolutely riveting when I read it in my senior year of college. It’s a classic.

small-worldMy academic conference career began and ended with one I attended the summer after college graduation. I adapted a paper I’d written about D.H. Lawrence’s new moral framework for sexuality and was accepted to present it at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America’s annual conference in 2005, which that year was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thankfully, I’ve mostly blanked out my actual paper presentation as part of a panel of three young people, but the trip as a whole was wonderful—it was my first time in the southwest, and the conference included great field trips to Lawrence’s ranch at Taos and the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. I prepared for the experience by reading David Lodge’s Small World, a paperback I’d plucked from the shelves of the bookstore where I worked part-time during my senior year. “A satire about the academic conference circuit? I’m there!” I thought, and since then David Lodge has become one of my two or three favorite authors.

possessionIt wasn’t until I returned to England to get my Master’s in 2005–6 that I really reclaimed reading as a leisure activity. The last couple years of college had been so busy I’d barely been able to cope with my assigned reading; I remember never making it very far in any paperback I picked up from the public library (like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which I’ve never gone back to). But the long, lonely evenings in Leeds had to be filled somehow, and the upstairs stacks of the magnificent Brotherton Library had plenty to offer in the way of literary fiction. In that year I made my way through loads of books by A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes, as well as David Lodge (my top 3, probably). Possession made the biggest impression, but I love pretty much all of Byatt’s work. If pressed to name my favorite author, it would be her.

three-dog-lifeIn the partial year between finishing my Master’s and getting married back in England, I lived at home with my parents and worked part-time at a community college library. My evening shifts were often dead quiet, so I got plenty of reading done behind the circulation desk. One book I selected at random from the public library shelves, Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, had a big impact on me in 2007. The memoir tells of her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftermath. Thomas writes in a fragmentary, episodic format that felt fresh and jolted me. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the style, but it sure was intriguing.

without-a-mapheavens-coastI picked up Meredith Hall’s Without a Map around the same time, which cemented my interest in women’s life stories. Memoirs have been among my favorite genres ever since. Mark Doty’s exquisite Heaven’s Coast, which I read the following year, kickstarted my particular fascination with bereavement memoirs. Also, I think it was through following up his memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry.


In recent years I’ve tried to branch out (e.g. into graphic novels and literature in translation), but contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction, memoirs, theology and travel books remain my preferred genres. Most of these loves I can trace back to my early twenties.


What books meant the most to you in young adulthood?

Five Books about Cats

I always used to be more of a dog person than a cat person, even though we had both while I was growing up, but now I’m a dedicated cat owner and have tried out some related reading. You’ll notice I don’t rate any of these five books about cats particularly highly, whereas there have been a number of dog books I’ve given 4 stars (Dog Years by Mark Doty, Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby, A Dog’s Life by Peter Mayle; even books that aren’t necessarily about dogs but reference life with them, like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck). What’s with that? Maybe dog lovers don’t have to worry so much about striking a balance between a pet’s standoffishness and affection. Maybe dogs play a larger role in everyday human life and leave a more gaping hole when they shuffle off the canine coil. Still, I enjoyed aspects of or specific passages from each of the following.


guest catThe Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

As a cat-loving freelance writer who aspires to read more literature in translation, I thought from the blurb that this book could not be more perfect for me. I bought it in a charity shop one afternoon and started reading right away. It’s only 140 pages, so I finished within 24 hours, but felt at a distance from the story the whole time. Part of it might be the translation – the translator’s notes at the end explain some useful context about the late 1980s setting, but also conflate the narrator and the author in such a way that the book seems like an artless memoir rather than a novella. But the more basic problem for me is that there’s simply not enough about the cat. There’s plenty of architectural detail about the guesthouse the narrator and his wife rent on the grounds of a mansion, plenty of economic detail about the housing market…but the cat just doesn’t make enough of an impression. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why this has been such a bestseller. Quite the disappointment.

My rating: 2.5 star rating


fur personThe Fur Person by May Sarton

I’m a huge fan of May Sarton’s journals – in which various cats play supporting roles – so for a while I’d been hoping to come across a copy of this little novelty book from 1957, a childish fable about a tomcat who transforms from a malnourished Cat-About-Town to a spoiled Gentleman Cat. Luckily I managed to find a copy of this one plus the Lessing (see below) in the Nature section at Book Thing of Baltimore. In a preface to the 1978 edition Sarton reveals that Tom Jones was, indeed, a real cat, a stray she and her partner Judy Matlack adopted when they lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wonderful coincidence: when they were on sabbatical in the early 1950s, they sublet the place to the Nabokovs, who looked after Tom while they were away!

IMG_0074I found this a bit lightweight overall, and the whole idea of a ‘fur person’ is a little strange – don’t we love cats precisely because they’re not people? Still, I enjoyed the proud cat’s Ten Commandments (e.g. “II. A Gentleman Cat allows no constraint of his person … III. A Gentleman Cat does not mew except in extremity”) and spotted my own domestic situation in this description: “while she [‘Gentle Voice’ = Judy] was away the other housekeeper [= Sarton] was sometimes quite absent-minded and even forgot his lunch once or twice because she sat for hours and hours in front of a typewriter, tapping out messages with her fingers.” The black-and-white illustrations by David Canright are a highlight.

My rating: 3 star rating


particularly catsParticularly Cats…And Rufus by Doris Lessing

A book about cats that I would almost hesitate to recommend to cat lovers: it contains many a scene of kitty carnage, as well as some unenlightened resistance to spaying and neutering. Lessing grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe that was at one point overrun with about 40 cats. Her mother went away, expecting her father to have ‘taken care of them’ by the time she got back. He tried chloroform to start with, but it was too slow and ineffective; in the end he rounded them all up in a room and got out his WWI revolver. And that’s not the end of it; even into her adulthood in England Lessing balked at taking female cats in for surgery so would find occasionally herself saddled with unwanted litters of kittens that they decided had to be drowned. It’s really a remarkably unsentimental record of her dealings with cats.

That’s not to say there weren’t some cats she willingly and lovingly kept as pets, particularly a pair of rival females known simply as “black cat” and “grey cat,” and later a stray named Rufus who adopted her. But even with cherished felines she comes across as tough: “Anyway, she had to be killed and I decided that to keep cats in London was a mistake” or “I smacked grey cat” for bullying the black one. The very fact of not giving the pair names certainly quashes any notion of her as some cuddly cat lady. All the same, she was a dutiful nurse when black cat and Rufus fell ill. The book ends on a repentant note: “Knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”

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My favorite thing about the book is the watercolor illustrations by James McMullan.

My rating: 2.5 star rating


unadulterated catThe Unadulterated Cat: A Campaign for Real Cats by Terry Pratchett

Like Douglas Adams or Monty Python, Terry Pratchett is, alas, a representative of the kind of British humor I just don’t get. But I rather enjoyed this small novelty book (bought for my husband for Christmas) all the same. For Pratchett, a “Real” cat is a non-pampered, tough-as-nails outdoor creature that hunts and generally does its own thing but also knows how to wrap its human servants around its paws. I like his idea of “cat chess” as a neighborhood-wide feline game of strategy, moving between carefully selected vantage points to keep an eye on the whole road yet avoid confrontation with other cats. It’s certainly true on our street. And this is quite a good summary of what cats do and why we put up with them:

What other animal gets fed, not because it’s useful, or guards the house, or sings, but because when it does get fed it looks pleased? And purrs. The purr is very important. It’s the purr that makes up for the Things Under the Bed, the occasional pungency, the 4 a.m. yowl.

 My rating: 3 star rating


on catsOn Cats by Charles Bukowski

“In my next life I want to be a cat. To sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. To sit around licking my ass.” I’d never read anything else by Bukowski, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book, which is mostly composed of previously unpublished poems and short prose pieces about the author’s multiple cats. The tone is an odd mixture of gruff and sentimental. Make no mistake: his cats were all Real cats, in line with the Pratchett model. A white Manx cat, for instance, had been shot, run over, and had his tail cut off. Another was named Butch Van Gogh Artaud Bukowski. You wouldn’t mess with a cat with a macho name like that, would you? My favorite passage is from “War Surplus,” about an exchange he and his wife had with a store clerk:

“what will the cats do if there is an explosion?”

“lady, cats are different than we are, they are of a lower order.”

“I think cats are better than we are,” I said.

the clerk looked at me. “we don’t have gas masks for cats.”

 My rating: 3 star rating


Is there a terrific cat book out there that I haven’t read yet? I do hope so! Please add your suggestions in the comments.

Small Books Are Good, Too

Last week I wrote in praise of doorstoppers – books over 500 pages. But I also love really short books: there’s just as much writing skill involved in making a narrative concise, and it can be supremely satisfying to pick up a book and polish it off within a couple hours, especially if you’re in a situation of captured attention as on a plane. Being honest and slightly selfish for a moment, short books are also a great way to build up a flagging year list.

Below I highlight poetry collections, memoirs, short stories and novellas that should be on your agenda if you’re looking for a quick read (number of pages in brackets after each title):

Poetry

I try to always have a book of contemporary poetry on the go, usually by a British poet since I pluck these at random from my local public library shelves. Poetry collections aren’t always ‘quick’ reads, nor should they be, because you often have to read a poem more than once to understand it or truly appreciate its techniques. Still, with most poetry books numbering somewhere between 45 and 90 pages, even if you parcel them out over days or weeks they’ll take much less time than a novel. Pick up something by Mark Doty, Kathleen Jamie, David Harsent or Christopher Reid and you’ll have plenty of beautiful verse to ponder.

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Recently reviewed and recommended:


Short Memoirs

Depending on how thorough they are, autobiographies can often hover around 300 or 400 pages. Looking through my shelves, though, I’ve spotted a few in the 140–160 page range: My Movie Business by John Irving [158], The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby [139], and Winter by Rick Bass [162]. Another short one well worth reading is the unusual The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey [170], a story about debilitating illness and taking comfort from nature.

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Abigail Thomas, one of my favorite memoirists, writes in an episodic style that makes her 200-page books fly by as if they were half that length. Also, Anne Lamott has written two very short faith memoirs that would serve as a good introduction to her style and content for those who haven’t read Traveling Mercies et al.: Help Thanks Wow [102] and Stitches [112].

Recently reviewed and recommended:


Short Stories

I used to shy away from short stories because I didn’t think they were worth the emotional investment, but recently I’ve decided I really like the rhythm of picking up a set of characters, a storyline and a voice and then, after 20 or so pages, following an epiphany or an aporia (or utter confusion), trading them in for a whole new scenario. Short stories are also the perfect length for reading during a quick meal or car ride. Two short story collections made it onto my “Best of 2014” list: White Man’s Problems by Kevin Morris and The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant.

Recently reviewed and recommended (no page numbers listed here because each story can stand alone):


Novellas

With some credits for free Penguin books I got hold of Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo (translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) [135], a book I’d been hankering to read ever since I came across that terrific title. It’s an enjoyable academic comedy and locked room mystery, with nods to Borges and Poe (though I probably didn’t get them all).

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I also recently discovered Peirene Press, which exclusively publishes novellas in translation. Their motto is “Contemporary European Literature. Thought provoking, well designed, short.” They publish the novellas in thematic trilogies, with headings such as “Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy” and “Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets.” The book I own from Peirene (scored from a secondhand bookshop in Henley-on-Thames for £1), from the “Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments” series, is Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson [122] (translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah).

It’s an odd little book, with a mixture of past and present tense and first-, third- and first-person plural narration. Set in the village of Downe, it’s peripherally about the title character, Charles Darwin’s gardener Thomas Davies, a new widower with two children, one of whom has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (newly identified). It’s thin on plot, it must be said. Daniel Lewis, the verger of Downe for five years, was dismissed for stealing from the church and is beaten up when he comes back to town; some characters think and talk about Darwin’s theory and Davies’s bereavement; there’s an overturned cart.

My favorite section, “At the Anchor,” is composed of conversations at the village pub, and my favorite individual lines reflect on Darwin’s influence on contemporary thought:

“Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks.”

“Great men are remembered, like Mr Darwin, a genuine monolith. We small folk are mere sand, washed by the waves as they go back and forth.”

“People in future decades and centuries will react to our ideas superciliously, as if we were children playing at thinking. We shall look most amusing in the light of new thoughts and inventions.”

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If you’re looking to get through a classic in an afternoon, why not try one of these (full text available for free online through Project Gutenberg or other initiatives): Animal Farm by George Orwell [95], Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton [181] or Flush by Virginia Woolf (her spoof ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel) [108]. E. M. Forster’s novels also read very quickly, and several of John Steinbeck’s novels are quite short. Whether or not you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn movie, you’ll want to read the sparkling, bittersweet Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote [100]; my edition also includes several of his best known short stories, including the wonderful “A Christmas Memory.”

Four novellas together don't stack up very far compared to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Even four novellas put together don’t stack up very far compared to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

I recently finished The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald [123]; all her books are similarly concise, so you may want to give her a try. The next novella on the pile for me is Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons [126]. I had never heard of the author, but the title and description lured me into buying it from a library book sale on a trip back to America (for 25 cents, why not?!). It’s a Southern Gothic story with an eleven-year-old narrator whom Walker Percy likened to Holden Caulfield. The alluring first line: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”

 

For more ideas, see these two Publishers Weekly’s lists:

10 Best Books Shorter than 150 Pages” (only repeats one of my suggestions)

10 Best Short Story Collections You’ve Never Read

 

Off topic, but today is a milestone for me: it marks exactly two years that I’ve been a freelance writer!


Are you fond of short books? Do you prefer them to doorstoppers? What are some of your favorite novellas? All comments welcome!