A couple of months ago we finally rescued the last boxes (we think) of our possessions out of my in-laws’ attic and storage cupboard…only five years after we moved out! As I was sorting through a box of my husband’s childhood books, I found a couple that he had won through school prizes – both of which seem to prefigure his love of British wildlife, and badgers in particular.
We also found another book he accidentally inherited from his school when the library burned down – along with the Gerald Durrell memoir and a paperback copy of Animal Farm, that makes three books that never made it back to the school even after they rebuilt. Oops!
I gave some thought to the other personal inscriptions in our book collection. Although we don’t have all that many examples in total, my mother (whom I generally call “Marm”) is the queen of inscriptions: you can count on her to write the date, the occasion, and a heartfelt message inside the front cover of any book she gives as a gift. It’s terribly sweet.
I got the Betty Crocker cookbook as a birthday present just as I was setting off for my Master’s year in Leeds – the first time I ever had to cook for myself. Over the last 11.5 years it’s gotten a lot of use, as the missing fragments of the ring binder show.
Another cookbook with some sentimental value to us is Delia Smith’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course – a classic of English cuisine that we got as a wedding present. It’s extra special as the giver, my husband’s Auntie Joan (not actually an aunt, but a first cousin once removed or something like that), passed away earlier this year.
Do you like writing and/or receiving personal inscriptions in books?
I’ve marked the turn of the seasons by following a ‘Midwinter’ book with a ‘Spring’ one.
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
My third and favorite Moomins book (so far).
Moomins are supposed to sleep through the winter, but this year young Moomintroll awakens and finds himself in a “strange and dangerous” world transformed by snowdrifts. He can’t get his parents to wake up so is effectively a temporary orphan, surrounded by peculiar creatures from Jansson’s menagerie, this time including a dim-witted squirrel, invisible shrews, a glum little dog who wishes he could run with wolves, and the Dweller Under the Sink (with its exceptionally bushy eyebrows).
While Moomintroll searches for totems of familiarity—
He looked at the cupboard in the corner and thought of how nice it was to know that his own old bath-gown was hanging inside it. That something certain and cosy still remained in the middle of all the new and worrying things.
—Too-ticky has the opposite mindset: “All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.” She goes fishing under the ice, builds a life-size horse out of snow, and assembles tree trunks and old furniture for the midwinter ritual of a huge bonfire.
When they receive a visit from the Hemulen, who’s keen on skiing and declares the indoors too stuffy in winter, the creatures quickly tire of his energetic optimism. The truth is that they like sitting around being miserable. “I’m cold! I’m lonely! I want the sun back again!” Moomintroll pouts, but even he is too affable to make the Hemulen leave.
Of course the spring finally arrives, as it does every year, but it’s depressingly long in coming and for Moomintroll becomes a matter of faith. I love the strangeness of Jansson’s imagination, the balance of melancholy and comedy, and the little philosophical nuggets buried along the way – children and adult readers alike will get a lot out of this. It doesn’t talk down to children with a rosy message about everything being alright.
Spring:An anthology for the changing seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison
Although this was the first of the Wildlife Trusts anthologies published in 2016, I got a late start last year so am reading this as the final of four. In common with the other volumes, it’s a terrific mix of contemporary and historical writing, big names and newcomers, observation and reflection. Compared with the other books, it seems to have more about WT sites in particular, with a few pieces from current volunteers or former employees. I also noticed that there’s a bit more of a focus on birds – with essays on the chiffchaff, the birds encountered on the Cley Marshes, cuckoo festivals, young dippers, and a tawny owl chick.
That said, there’s still plenty of variety here, with everything from spring flora* to adders fueling the generally two- to three-page essays. I especially liked Kate Long’s piece on filming hedgehogs at night and Vijay Medtia’s on how people of color living in cities have little access to nature; he recalls spotting a magpie with a twig in its beak at a train station and having to ask someone what it was called. Of the previously published authors, I enjoyed hearing more from Rob Cowen and Miriam Darlington and laughed at Will Cohu’s ice cream and underwear metaphors applied to varieties of cherry trees.
You can’t beat George Orwell on toad sex, and it’s fun to encounter excerpts from classic novels in the context of a nature book: The Wind in the Willows, Lorna Doone, and Jane Eyre (which, shamefully, I didn’t recognize until Lowood was mentioned in the last paragraph). I think my favorite piece of all, though, was Jo Sinclair’s about watching spring’s arrival after a major operation and noting nature’s inscrutable jumble of beauty and brutality.
And my favorite passage:
Year after year all this loveliness for eye and ear recurs: in early days, in youth, it was anticipated with confidence; in later years, as the season approaches, experience and age qualify the confidence with apprehension lest clouds of war or civil strife, or some emergency of work, or declining health, or some other form of human ill may destroy the pleasure or even the sight of it: and when once again it has been enjoyed we have a sense of gratitude greater than in the days of confident and thoughtless youth. Perhaps the memory of those days, having become part of our being, helps us in later life to enjoy each passing season.
(from Sir Edward Grey’s The Charm of Birds, 1927)
This passage from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary (April 14, 1871) makes me look forward to our trip to nearby Hay-on-Wye next month: “The village is in a blaze of fruit blossom. Clyro is at its loveliest. What more can be said?” Simply that these anthologies are an essential companion to the seasons.
*Like my husband’s piece, positioned right before the R.D. Blackmore extract.
Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, doublethink, 2 + 2 = 5, Room 101. I’d never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four until this month, but so many of its concepts and catchphrases were familiar to me; they’ve entered into popular culture to a remarkable extent. I found that the basics of the plot, and even the specifics of the horrifying climax, were already somewhere in the back of my mind. That’s how much of a household story this is. And, given the recent rise of authoritarian regimes, 1984 is back in style – if it ever went out.
Published in 1949, just four years after Animal Farm, the novel imagines a post-Revolution future in which Oceania (England) is alternately at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. It’s a dystopian vision of bombing raids, public hangings and triumphant film reels of refugees drowning. Absolute loyalty to Big Brother and his Party and total hatred of dissidents are required. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth – an ironic name if ever there was one. His job is to doctor newspaper articles to ‘rectify’ the past. Scrutinized constantly by a telescreen, he ‘corrects’ the written record and burns the evidence in memory holes.
But Winston can’t forget that he once saw a photograph proving that several scapegoats who were executed were actually innocent, and ever since he has been unfaithful to the Party in his heart. “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” He makes two bids for freedom: his thought life, as revealed in his diary, and (in Part II) an affair with Julia, a fellow rebel he meets in a rented room above a pawnbroker’s. They join the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein’s anti-Party movement, and read from his manifesto. Impossible to forget, though, that there’s a Part III to come, and their happy nonconformity is unlikely to survive the Thought Police’s vigilance.
I can’t say I enjoyed this novel exactly. It was more a case of recognizing its cultural importance and prescience about perennial political trends. What I most liked was the irony of the Party’s rebranding: the Ministry of Love is the torture headquarters, for instance, and the propaganda is rife with oxymorons (“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”). I also appreciated Orwell’s efforts to humanize Winston via his memories of his mother and sister, his estranged wife, and his simple love of beauty – as when he buys a glass and coral paperweight on a whim. Reassuringly, the relationship with Julia isn’t just about sex but is an example of true love against the odds: when Winston tells her “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth,” she replies “I couldn’t care less.”
And yet there are parts of the book that are truly tedious, like the extracts from Goldstein’s manifesto and the appendix on Newspeak. Like many dystopians, this somewhat sacrifices story in the service of ideas. It certainly could have been cut by up to one-third. However, it’s still full of potent reminders like these about resisting misinformation:
I don’t imagine that we can alter anything in our own lifetime. But one can imagine little knots of resistance springing up here and there—small groups of people banding themselves together, and gradually growing, and even leaving a few records behind, so that the next generation can carry on where we leave off.
At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. … We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police, there is no other way.
If he [the average citizen of Oceania] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.
I found it rewarding to follow this with Margaret Atwood’s 2003 essay on Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four was the direct model for the feminist dystopia she started writing in the real 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale. She helped me realize something I hadn’t due to my eyes glazing over during the appendix: it’s in the past tense, looking back on a repressive government. In other words, she writes, “the regime has fallen … language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. … Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for.” In homage, she ended The Handmaid’s Tale with a section set hundreds of years in the future, when Offred’s world is studied by academics.
That’s important to remember: one day our current situation, horrible as it might feel to live through, will be nothing but a brief chapter in the history books. It’s up to us, though, to help ensure that whatever succeeds it is much better.
Next month: I plan to choose a short classic from “The Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure; my options are The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë), The Rector’s Daughter (F.M. Mayor), and The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), all of which I own. Let me know which would be your pick.
This is the first post in a new monthly series intended to encourage myself to read more of the classics I own. In January I read two works of classic literature: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy and No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West.
Between college and grad school I read Hardy’s five major novels, but it’s probably been ten years or more since I tried a new one. Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favorite books of all time, so I couldn’t help but compare Under the Greenwood Tree* to it – unfavorably, alas – as I was reading.
Greenwood was Hardy’s second novel, published in 1872. That’s just two years before Madding Crowd, and the two are quite similar in a few ways: the main female character is a conceited flirt who has to decide between three potential suitors; the supporting cast is made up of “rustics” who speak in country dialect; and the Dorset setting, including the landscape, weather and traditional activities, is a strong presence in its own right.
But where Bathsheba Everdene, though periodically maddening, is ultimately a sympathetic figure, Greenwood’s Fancy Day is a character I could never warm to. As the new schoolteacher and organist in Mellstock village, she puts on airs and imagines she’s too good for Dick Dewy, a salt-of-the-earth peddler. She’s also incurably vain. “Yes, I must wear the hat, dear Dicky, because I ought to wear a hat, you know,” she says, even though Dick calls the hat “Rather too coquettish.”
A bare-bones summary of the novel makes it sound more entertaining than it actually is: A set of country musicians (the “Mellstock Quire”) learns their services are no longer required at the local church; they are to be replaced by an organ. The novel opens on Christmas Eve and in the early chapters proceeds by way of caroling, cider drinking and dances. It’s rather jolly, but where is it all going? Then, once the plot takes over, Fancy’s weighing up of the wooing attentions of Dick, Mr. Shiner and Parson Maybold soon grows tedious.
Whereas the passages about the rustics are brief, welcome interludes in Madding Crowd, here they are nearly constant and start to feel overpowering. “You are charmed on condition that you accept Hardy’s condescension towards his characters,” Claire Tomalin observes in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. They are harmless folk, but their rural way of life will soon be superseded. The novel is set a generation back, in about the 1840s, so has an elegiac tone to it, and Hardy’s subtitles suggest he was trying to freeze an image of a bygone time.
Fancy’s directives for her wedding reception make clear the divide between old and new:
The propriety of every one was intense by reason of the influence of Fancy, who, as an additional precaution in this direction, had strictly charged her father and the tranter [Dick’s father] to carefully avoid saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in their conversation, on the plea that those ancient words sounded so very humiliating to persons of newer taste; also that they were never to be seen drawing the back of the hand across the mouth after drinking—a local English custom of extraordinary antiquity, but stated by Fancy to be decidedly dying out among the upper classes of society.
This is a pleasant enough book, and at just 160 or so pages goes by fairly quickly, yet I found myself losing interest at many points and often could not bear to read more than one short chapter at a time. At this rate, will I ever get to decidedly minor Hardy novels like The Hand of Ethelberta, The Trumpet-Major, A Pair of Blue Eyes, and A Laodicean?
*“Under the greenwood tree” is a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Favorite unrelated line: “Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ’em.”
No Signposts in the Sea (1961) is my second taste of Sackville-West’s fiction (after All Passion Spent). It was her last novel, published just one year before her death, and was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. She was at this point already ill with the cancer that would kill her, though it was as yet undiagnosed.
That context goes a long way towards explaining the preoccupations of No Signposts, set on board a cruise ship and narrated by fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist who has been told by his doctor that he has just a few months to live. He’s embarked on the voyage to be close to the woman he loves, forty-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. She has no idea that he’s ill, and as the weeks pass and they share tender moments – dinner on shore at an island based on Macao, a lightning storm viewed from her private balcony – he dares to hope that she might return his feelings but still doesn’t tell her about his imminent death, even as she makes tentative plans for excursions they might take once they’re back in London.
The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his eventual death. It’s full of his solitary musings but also his conversations with Laura, who is refreshingly unconventional in her approach to relationships:
I can’t abide the Mr. and Mrs. Noah attitude towards marriage; the animals went in two by two, forever stuck together with glue. I resent it as much for other people as I should for myself. It seems to me a degradation of individual dignity.
She also tells a story about a lesbian couple she knows who are aging happily together; it feels a bit out of place, but its inclusion is striking given Sackville-West’s history of lesbian relationships.
I’d recommend this short novel to anyone who’s looking for a quick women’s classic with plenty to say about what matters in life.
Next month: I’ve never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and it seems to be having something of a resurgence in popularity at the moment, so perhaps now is the time?
The houseguests have gone home, the Christmas tree is coming down tomorrow, and it’s darned cold. I’m feeling stuck in a rut in my career, the blog, and so many other areas of life. It’s hard not to think of 2017 as a huge stretch of emptiness with very few bright spots. All I want to do is sit around in my new fuzzy bathrobe and read under the cat. Luckily, I’ve had some great books to accompany me through the Christmas period and have finished five so far this year.
I thought I’d continue the habit of writing two-sentence reviews (or maybe no more than three), except when I’m writing proper full-length reviews on assignment or for blog tours or other websites. Granted, they’re usually long and multi-part sentences, and this isn’t actually a time-saving trick – as Blaise Pascal once said, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one” – but it feels like good discipline.
So here’s some mini-reviews of what I’ve been reading in late December and early January:
The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble
The “dark flood” is D.H. Lawrence’s metaphor for death, and here it corresponds to busy seventy-something Fran’s obsession with last words, obituaries and the search for the good death as many of her friends and acquaintances succumb – but also to literal flooding in the west of England and (dubious, this) to mass immigration of Asians and Africans into Europe. This is my favorite of the five Drabble books that I’ve read – it’s closest in style and tone to her sister A.S. Byatt as well as to Tessa Hadley, and the themes of old age and life’s randomness are strong – even though there seem to be too many characters and the Canary Islands subplot mostly feels like an unnecessary distraction. (Public library)
Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
In Discworld belief causes imagined beings to exist, so when a devious plot to control children’s minds results in a dearth of belief in the Hogfather, the Fat Man temporarily disappears and Death has to fill in for him on this Hogswatch night. I laughed aloud a few times while reading this clever Christmas parody, but I had a bit of trouble following the plot and grasping who all the characters were given that this was my first Discworld book; in general I’d say that Pratchett is another example of British humor that I don’t entirely appreciate (along with Monty Python and Douglas Adams) – he’s my husband’s favorite, but I doubt I’ll try another of his books. (Own copy)
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
In a reprise of childhood holidays that inevitably headed northwest, Bunting takes a series of journeys around the Hebrides and weaves together her contemporary travels with the religion, folklore and history of this Scottish island chain, an often sad litany of the Gaels’ poverty and displacement that culminated with the brutal Clearances. Rather than giving an exhaustive survey, she chooses seven islands to focus on and tells stories of unexpected connections – Orwell’s stay on Jura, Lord Leverhulme’s (he of Port Sunlight and Unilever) purchase of Lewis, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s landing on Eriskay – as she asks how geography influences history and what it truly means to belong to a place. (Public library)
Cobwebs and Cream Teas: A Year in the Life of a National Trust House, Mary Mackie
Mackie’s husband was Houseman and then Administrator at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk in the 1980s – live-in roles that demanded a wide range of skills and much more commitment than the usual 9 to 5 (when he borrowed a pedometer he learned that he walked 15 miles in the average day, without leaving the house!). Her memoir of their first year at Felbrigg proceeds chronologically, from the intense cleaning and renovations of the winter closed season through to the following Christmas’ festivities, and takes in along the way plenty of mishaps and visitor oddities. It will delight anyone who’d like a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a historic home. (Own copy)
The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir, Betsy Lerner
When life unexpectedly took the middle-aged Lerner back to her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, she spent several years sitting in on her mother’s weekly bridge games to learn more about these five Jewish octogenarians who have been friends for 50 years and despite their old-fashioned reserve have seen each other through the loss of careers, health, husbands and children. Although Lerner also took bridge lessons herself, this is less about the game and more about her ever-testy relationship with her mother (starting with her rebellious teenage years), the ageing process, and the ways that women of different generations relate to their family and friends. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that every mother and daughter should read this; I plan to shove it in my mother’s and sister’s hands the next time I’m in the States. (Own copy)
Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite
Guite chooses well-known poems (by Christina Rossetti, John Donne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge et al.) as well as more obscure contemporary ones as daily devotional reading between the start of Advent and Epiphany; I especially liked his sonnet sequence in response to the seven “O Antiphons.” His commentary is learned and insightful, and even if at times I thought he goes into too much in-depth analysis rather than letting the poems speak for themselves, this remains a very good companion to the Christmas season for any poetry lover. (E-book from NetGalley)
I started too many books over Christmas and have sort of put six of them on hold – including Titus Groan, which I’m thinking of quitting (it takes over 50 pages for one servant to tell another that the master has had a son?!), and City on Fire, which is wonderful but dispiritingly long: even after two good sessions with it in the days after Christmas, I’ve barely made a dent.
However, the three books that I am actively reading I’m loving: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is an uproarious blend of time travel science fiction and Victorian pastiche (university library), Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a compulsive historical saga set in Korea (ARC from NetGalley), and the memoir Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear has been compared to H is for Hawk in the way she turns to birdwatching to deal with depression (e-book from Edelweiss). I also will be unlikely to resist my e-galley of the latest Anne Lamott book, Hallelujah Anyway (forthcoming in April, ARC from Edelweiss), for much longer.
Meanwhile, in post-holiday charity shopping I scored six books for £1.90: one’s been tucked away as a present for later in the year; the Ozeki I’ve already read, but it’s a favorite so I’m glad to own it; and the rest are new to me. I look forward to trying Han Kang; Anne Tyler is a reliable choice for a cozy read; and the Hobbs sounds like a wonderful Victorian-set novel.
All in all, I seem to be starting my year in books as I mean to go on: reading a ton; making sure I review most or all of the books, even if I write just a few sentences; maintaining a balance between my own books, library books, and recent or advance NetGalley/Edelweiss reads; and failing to restrain myself from buying more.
The latest book from Peirene Press is narrated by a gorilla. That’s no secret: it’s an explicit warning given in the blurb. Yet the narrator doesn’t remain a gorilla. The clue is in the title: in The Man I Became, the eleventh novel by Belgian Flemish author Peter Verhelst (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), various species are captured and forcibly humanized. Our narrator – whose name we never know – remembers his happy life in Africa:
We caught termites by pushing long twigs, as flexible as blades of grass, into their mounds and then licking the twigs clean. … We hung from branches one-handed to show off our muscles. We felt like princes and princesses. We were young and beautiful and our bliss was never going to end.
But soon his fellows start disappearing, and eventually the riders come for him too. He’s captured and marched across the desert to the sea to be shipped to the New World. The gorillas’ training begins soon after they arrive.
We learned to walk upright. ‘Faster! Taller!’ said the human. … Then we learned how to shave. … We learned a new language word by word. We learned to eat from a bowl and then with knife and fork. … We learned to powder our skin to make it lighter.
At this point I started to get a bit nervous about the book’s racial connotations. Especially as the gorillas-in-transition become sexual objects, I wondered what Verhelst could be attempting to say about the notions of the noble savage and the purification of the race.
The creatures’ progress is carefully documented. They carry phones that function as identification as well as an external memory. The art of conversation is something they practice at cocktail parties, where the narrator learns that he and his kind are not the only ones; giraffes, buffalo, leopards, parrots, lions and bonobos have all been subjected to the same experiment. With all of them together in the same room, the animals have to suppress their natural fear reactions.
The narrator becomes an animal trainer for the evolution-in-action show at Dreamland, an amusement park with roller coasters and fast food. There are different classes of animals, you see; some remain animals and do menial duties, while a chosen few are transformed into humans. He halfheartedly looks for his brother and has a brief affair with Emily. When a violent incident leaves several dead and the narrator’s human is caught acquiring animals through the black market, Dreamland’s very existence is threatened. (If you know the history of the real Dreamland, a longtime Coney Island attraction, you may have an inkling.)
This novella is scarcely 120 pages. Short books can be wonderful, but that’s not the case if there’s no space to craft a believable plot. The pace is so quick here that there’s no chance to bed into scenes and settings, and the narrator is never entirely convincing – whether as a gorilla, a man or something in between. Too much of the book feels dreamlike and fragmentary.
Meanwhile, the ideology bothered me. Is this simply a social satire à la Animal Farm, to which it’s compared in the prefatory material? A sort of ‘some animals are more equal than others’ message? If so, then, well, that’s been done before. Nor is there any shortage of books mocking caste systems and eugenic experimentation. Apart from a handful of memorable lines, the prose is quite simplistic, and the overall storyline doesn’t feel original.
Verhelst has written that he was inspired by three things: a troop of cheeky baboons encountered in South Africa, the history of the early-twentieth-century Dreamland, and news of the completed human genome project. “What is a human? Is it a creature that can smile while walking on two legs? A creature with a signature and a mobile phone?” he asks. These are interesting questions, certainly, but I felt they were not explored with particular depth or panache here.
The Man I Became was my third Peirene book, after The Looking-Glass Sisters. This one was a disappointment, but I will not let that deter me from trying more, including the other two in the “Fairy Tale series: End of Innocence”: Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter and Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake.
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.
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 .
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 Animalsby David James Poissant.
Recently reviewed and recommended (no page numbers listed here because each story can stand alone):
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 Fromeby 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: