This month we began with Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It fuses horror-tinged magic realism with an emotionally resonant story of disconnection and grief. My review is here. I met the lovely Julia Armfield at the 2019 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony at the London Library. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 This morning I was reading in Slime, Susanne Wedlich’s wide-ranging popular science book about primordial slime and mucus and biofilms and everything in between, about the peculiar creatures that thrive in the high-pressure deep sea level known as the hadal zone – which is of great significance in Armfield’s book. One of these is the hadal snailfish.
#2 I wish I could remember how I first heard about The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (2010). Possibly the Bas Bleu catalogue? In any case, it was one of the books I requested on interlibrary loan during one of our stays with my parents in Maryland. Bailey, bedbound by chronic illness, saw in the snail that lived on her bedside table a microcosm of nature and animal behaviour. It’s a peaceful book about changing one’s pace and expectations, and thereby appreciating life.
#3 The book is still much admired in nature writing circles. In fact, it was mentioned by Anita Roy, one of the panellists at last year’s New Networks for Nature conference – except she couldn’t remember the author’s name so asked the audience if anyone knew. Yours truly called it out (twice, so I could be heard over my face mask). Anyway, Josie George is in a similar position to Bailey and A Still Life records how she has cultivated close observation skills of the nature around her. I believe she was even inspired to keep a snail at one point.
#4 Still Life is one of my favourite A.S. Byatt novels (this is not the first time I’ve used one of her novels that happens to have the same title as another book as a link in my chain; see also September 2020’s). Back in 2010, Erica Wagner, then literary editor of The Times and one of my idols (she’s American), happened to mention in her column the manner of death of a character in Still Life. Except she had it wrong. I e-mailed to say so, and got referred to in a follow-up column soon thereafter as a “perceptive reader” (i.e., know-it-all) who spotted the error; she used it as an opportunity to reflect on the tricksy nature of memory.
#5 When I wrote to Wagner, I remarked that the real means of death was similar to Thomas Merton’s, which is why it was fresh in mind though I hadn’t read the Byatt in years. (It would be ripe for rereading, in fact.) No spoilers here, so only look into Merton’s death if you’re morbidly curious and don’t mind having a novel’s ending ruined. I’ve not read an entire book by Merton yet, but have encountered his wisdom piecemeal via lots of references made by other authors and the daily excerpts in the one-year devotional book A Year with Thomas Merton, which I must have worked my way through in 2009.
#6 Merton was a Trappist monk based in Kentucky. In the process of introducing his girlfriend, Alma, a Bosnian American who grew up in northern Virginia, to the state where she’s come to live, Owen, the protagonist of Lee Cole’s debut novel, Groundskeeping, takes her to see Merton’s grave at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Literary grave hunting is one of my niche hobbies, and Groundskeeping, like Our Wives Under the Sea, is one of my top novels of 2022 so far.
So, I’ve gone from one reading year highlight to another, via two instances of me being a book nerd. Deep sea creatures, slime and snails, accidental deaths, and literary grave spotting: it’s been an odd chain! That’s just what I happened to come up with this morning, right after I wrote my review of Groundskeeping for BookBrowse; I’d started a chain yesterday afternoon and came up with something completely different before getting stuck on link #4. It goes to show you how arbitrary and off-the-cuff this meme can be, though I know others pick a strategy and stick with it, or first choose the books and then shoehorn them in.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I can’t remember if I still have a copy – pretty much all of my books are now packed in advance of our mid-May move – but if I find it, I should be sure to actually read it!
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
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):
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.
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth by Ruth Padel 
- All One Breath by John Burnside 
- Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being by Paul Durcan 
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 , The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby , and Winter by Rick Bass . Another short one well worth reading is the unusual The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey , a story about debilitating illness and taking comfort from nature.
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  and Stitches .
Recently reviewed and recommended:
- The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso 
- The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander 
- What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas  – also included on my BookTrib list of mother–daughter memoirs to read for Mother’s Day
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):
- Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
- Funny Once by Antonya Nelson
- Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
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) , 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).
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  (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.”
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 , Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  or Flush by Virginia Woolf (her spoof ‘biography’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel) . 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 ; my edition also includes several of his best known short stories, including the wonderful “A Christmas Memory.”
I recently finished The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald ; 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 . 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)
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!