Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.
For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)
To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.
Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.
A favorite passage:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)
The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.
Some favorite passages:
“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”
“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”
“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
You might be surprised to hear that I received ‘only’ eight books for Christmas. (And a very fetching owl bookmark.) Here they are:
As I did last year, I’ve come up with my top 15 fiction books of the year (the three translated works first appeared in English in 2016) and even attempted to rank them. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Without further ado, let the countdown begin!
- Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa: A hard-hitting novel with an unforgettably resonant title, this is set at the 1999 Seattle WTO protest: Yapa explores the motivations and backstories of activists, police officers, and delegates as the day deteriorates into violence. This fine debut is about cultivating the natural compassion in your heart even while under the threat of the fist.
- The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Beyond the barest biographical facts, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Patricia Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination, making this one of the most gripping, compulsive books I encountered this year.
- Nutshell by Ian McEwan: Within the first few pages, I was captivated and convinced by the voice of this contemporary, in utero Hamlet. His captive state pairs perfectly with Hamlet’s existential despair, but also makes him (and us as readers) part of the conspiracy: even as he wants justice for his father, he has to hope his mother and uncle will get away with their crime; his whole future depends on it.
- The Longest Night by Andria Williams: This absorbing work of historical fiction combines a remote setting, the threat of nuclear fallout, and a marriage strained to the breaking point in a convincing early 1960s atmosphere. A great debut and an author I’d like to hear more from.
- Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin: Each of us is said to occupy 40 rooms in our lives; this novel in 40 vignettes, one per room, tells the life story of a Russian immigrant to America who dreams of becoming a poet but ends up a suburban housewife and mother of six. I feel this book will resonate with women of every age, prompting them to question the path they’ve taken, the passions they’ve left unexplored, and whether it’s too late to change.
- Irmina by Barbara Yelin: After her grandmother’s death Yelin, a Munich-based artist, found a box of diaries and letters that told the story of a budding love affair that was not to be and charted a young woman’s gradual capitulation to Nazi ideology. For the out-of-the-ordinary window onto Third Reich history and the excellent illustrations, I highly recommend this to graphic novel lovers and newbies alike.
- The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: In the 1850s a nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? Donoghue writes convincing and vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology and setting up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition.
- The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson: The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov (known here as Anton Pavlovich) stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine; one strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by the family’s eldest daughter, who’s dying of a brain tumor. An elegantly plotted story about writing, translation, illness, and making the most of life.
- Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war.
- Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell: Rindell brings the late 1950s, specifically the bustling, cutthroat New York City publishing world, to life through the connections between three young people who collide over a debated manuscript. It’s an expert evocation of Beat culture and post-war paranoia over communism and homosexuality.
- Golden Hill by Francis Spufford: The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000; before he can finally get his money, he’ll fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. Bawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant.
- Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Five university friends strive to make their lives count against the indifferent backdrop of recession-era New York City. You’ll see yourself in one or more of the characters, and the rest you’ll greet as if they were your own friends and makeshift family.
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent was a real-life legend from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but Perry’s second novel has fear of the sea creature re-infecting Aldwinter, her invented Essex village, in the 1890s. This exquisite work of historical fiction explores the gaps – narrower than one might think – between science and superstition and between friendship and romantic love.
- The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler: Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when in 1937 his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.
- Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: The restaurant where twenty-two-year-old Tess works is a claustrophobic world unto itself, like a theatre set where the food is high art and the staff interactions are pure drama. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing; it captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia.
& A poetry selection:
Still the Animals Enter by Jane Hilberry: A rich, strange, gently erotic collection featuring diverse styles and blurring the lines between child and adult, human and animal, life and death through the language of metamorphosis. The message is that we are part of a shared life beyond the individual family or even the human species; we are all connected.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors?
I’ll be back tomorrow with the best nonfiction books I read this year.