One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.
In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Journeys by Bee Rowlatt: A BBC journalist and mother of four sets out, baby in tow, to trace the steps of Mary Wollstonecraft in Norway and France. A follow-up trip to California is a little off-topic, but allows Rowlatt to survey the development of feminism over the last few centuries. This isn’t as successful a bibliomemoir as many I’ve read in recent years, such as Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch or Samantha Ellis’s How to Be a Heroine, but for readers interested in engaging in the ongoing debate about how women can balance work life with motherhood, and especially for any women who have attempted traveling with children, it’s a fun, sassy travelogue.
Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World by Christopher Kelly and Stuart Laycock: Proceeding alphabetically from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the authors give a comprehensive picture of Italians’ global reach through one- to five-page snapshots. There are many familiar names here, such as Caesar, Garibaldi and Marco Polo. Along with exploration, some major reasons for historical crossover were trade, war, colonialism and immigration. At times it feels as if the authors are grasping at straws; better to skip one-paragraph write-ups altogether and focus instead on the countries that have extensive links with Italy. Nonetheless, this is a lively, conversational book full of surprising facts.
Why You Won’t Go to Hell by Benjamin Vande Weerdhof Andrews: In a well-structured argument, Andrews prizes empirical thinking, rejects the supernatural, and affirms the possibility of godless morality. His central thesis is that religion doesn’t evolve to keep pace with society and so holds humanity back. The book’s tone is too often defensive, often in response to included website comments, and there are some failures of accuracy and fairness. Ultimately, though, this could be an inspirational book for atheists or believers, prompting both groups to question their assumptions and be willing to say “I don’t know.” Readers of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens will be particularly drawn to the book, but others should take a chance on it too.
Cultured Food for Health by Donna Schwenk: When Schwenk started eating cultured foods in 2002, she had diabetes, high blood pressure, and a premature newborn. Keen to see if good bacteria could help with her medical problems, she started introducing the “healing powerhouse” of kefir (a fermented milk product resembling thin yogurt), kombucha (bubbly tea), and cultured vegetables into her diet, and soon reaped the rewards. About a quarter of the book is background information about probiotic foods. Bullet-pointed lists of health benefits, along with an alphabetical inventory of the diseases that cultured foods can treat, should prove helpful. The rest of the book is devoted to recipes, most vegetarian.
Three Simple Questions: Being in the World, But Not of It by Charlie Horton: Horton, trained as a social worker, was diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration in 1988. It has gradually affected his speech and movement. Despite having lived with disability for nearly three decades, he declares, “the world I live in is rich, and my spirit is young.” Here he documents how he deals with depression and physical limitations through guided meditations that bring him closer to God. Although he comes from a Christian perspective, he writes about spirituality in such inclusive terms that his work should speak to people of any faith.
Middle Passage: The Artistic Life of Lawrence Baker by Louis B. Burroughs, Jr.: This ghostwritten autobiography of an African-American artist is not only an evocative, eventful life story that moves from the Jim Crow South to the North, but also a forceful artist’s manifesto. Burroughs writes in Baker’s voice, a decision that works surprisingly well. The title is a powerful reference to the slave trade. Indeed, Burroughs consciously crafts Baker’s autobiography as an “up from slavery” narrative reminiscent of Richard Wright and Maya Angelou – with ‘slavery’ in this case being poverty and racism.
40 Sonnets by Don Patterson: All but one of the poems in this new book have the sonnet’s traditional 14 lines; “The Version” is a short prose story about writing an untranslatable poem. However, even in the more conventional verses, there is a wide variety of both subject matter and rhyme scheme. Topics range from love and death to a phishing phone call and a footpath blocked off by Dundee City Council. A few favorites were “A Powercut,” set in a stuck elevator; “Seven Questions about the Journey,” an eerie call-and-response; and “Mercies,” a sweet elegy to an old dog put to sleep. There weren’t quite enough stand-outs here for my liking, but I appreciated the book as a showcase for just how divergent in form sonnets can be.
Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim: This is a quietly gripping book even though not much of moment happens over Kim’s five months teaching young men at a missionary-run college in Pyongyang. She was in a unique position in that students saw her as ethnically one of their own but she brought an outsider’s perspective to bear on what she observed. Just before she flew back to the States in 2011, Kim Jong-Il died, an event she uses as a framing device. It could have represented a turning point for the country, but instead history has repeated itself with Kim Jong-un. Kim thus ends on a note of frustration: she wants better for these young men she became so fond of. A rare glimpse into a country that carefully safeguards its secrets and masks its truth.
Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things that Matter by Diana Athill: Diana Athill turns 98 on December 21st. Apart from “Dead Right,” however, this collection is not primarily concerned with imminent death. Instead Athill is still grateful to be alive: marveling at a lifetime of good luck and health and taking joy in gardening, clothing, books, memories and friendships. Six of the 10 essays originally appeared elsewhere. The collection highlight is the title piece, about a miscarriage she suffered in her forties. Another stand-out is “The Decision,” about moving into a retirement home in her nineties. This doesn’t live up to her best memoirs, but is an essential read for a devoted fan, and a consolation given she will likely not publish anything else (though you never know). [For first-time Athill readers, I’d recommend starting with Somewhere Towards the End, followed by Stet, about her work as a literary editor.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads:
The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan: This debut novel blends postcolonial bureaucracy with steampunk zaniness. The setup is familiar enough: businessmen head overseas to take financial advantage of a former colony, puzzle over unfamiliar customs, and by the end are chastened but gain a clearer sense of values. Narrator Steven Strauss is the personal assistant to Raymond Ess, an entrepreneur with a history of mental illness. Their aviation company has gone bust; Strauss is to accompany Ess to India and keep him occupied by looking for an anti-gravity machine. Not anchored by either current events or convincing fantasy, the plot suffers in comparison to works by Geoff Dyer or Nick Harkaway. Despite entirely serviceable writing and a gravity-defying theme, it never really takes off.
My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict by Lisa Kotin: 1978. Twenty-one-year-old mime goes to macrobiotic rehab to recover from sugar addiction. Fails. Shows signs of being a sex addict as well. Pared down to headlines, that’s how this fairly rambling memoir about Kotin’s relationships with food, family, lovers, and career opens. I kept waiting for a turn, some moment of revelation, when Kotin’s binge eating would be solved. Still, her recreation of her obsessive younger self can be pretty funny and charming, and her family sounds a bit like the Sedaris clan. I found this a bit dated, but others may find the time period and Jewish family background more evocative.
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: I’m going to chalk this one up to blurb inflation. The writing is lively and the plot well crafted, with quirky postmodern touches, but the novel as a whole did not live up to my absurdly high expectations: it’s really nothing like A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It’s 1999 and Shira Greene is a failed translator from the Italian, now working as a temp in New York City and raising her daughter Andi with the help of her gay, Pakistani co-parent, Ahmad. One day she gets a call from Romei, a Nobel Prize-winning Italian poet who wants her to translate his new work, a version of Dante’s Vita Nuova that focuses on his relationship with his ill wife – and eventually starts to comment on Shira’s own life in surprising ways.
Water Sessions by James Lasdun: Wonderful poems from a severely underrated writer. The British Lasdun has relocated to small-town upstate New York, where he’s learned the spiritual worth of manual labor. There are such interesting rhyme schemes and half-rhymes throughout. One of the most striking poems, “Thing One and Thing Two,” compares human and animal sexuality in a rather disturbing way. The title sequence is a dialogue between a patient and a therapist, discussing what went wrong in a relationship and how arguments are never ‘about’ the thing that started it.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: A retelling of the life of King David from the perspective of the prophet Nathan. The naming takes some getting used to, but the stories – from gory massacres to moments of triumph – are recognizable from the Old Testament. What makes Brooks’s take unique is the different points of view it shows and the ways it subtly introduces doubt about David’s carefully cultivated image. It’s sensual historical fiction, full of rich descriptive language. Strangely unmemorable for me, perhaps because the storyline is just too familiar. Brooks doesn’t offer a radical reinterpretation but sows small seeds of doubt about the hero we think we know. (Full review in Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Third Way magazine.)
When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould: Gould may be familiar to British readers as a key strategist of the New Labour movement and one of Tony Blair’s advisors. In 2008 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and chose to pay for private treatment at New York’s Sloan-Kettering hospital instead of going for a radical operation through the NHS – a fateful decision. Gould’s own account is fairly short, about 140 pages, but it’s supplemented by short reminiscences from his wife and two daughters. Daughter Georgia’s, especially, is a very good blow-by-blow of his final week. All royalties from the book went to the National Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Fund.
Twain’s End by Lynn Cullen: “Twain’s End” was a possible name for the Clemens house in Connecticut, but it’s also a tip of the hat to Howards End and an indication of the main character’s impending death. In January 1909, when the novel opens, Samuel Clemens, 74, is busy dictating his autobiography and waiting for Halley’s Comet, the heavenly body that accompanied his birth, to see him back out. His secretary, Isabel Lyon, is 45 and it’s no secret that the two of them are involved. I love how the novel shifts between the perspectives of several strong female characters yet still gives a distinct portrait of Clemens/Twain. Interestingly, I found that it helped to have visited the Twain house in Connecticut – I could truly picture all the scenes, especially those set in the billiard room and conservatory.
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel: Lewis-Stempel is a proper, third-generation Herefordshire farmer, but also a naturalist with a poet’s eye. His day job might involve shooting rabbits, cutting hay and delivering lambs, but he still finds the time to notice and appreciate wildlife. He knows his field’s flowers, insects and birds as well as he knows his cows; he gets quiet and close enough to the ground to watch a shrew devouring beetles. June and July are the stand-out chapters, with some truly magical moments. When his mower breaks on a stone, he has to cut the hay by hand, returning him to a centuries-gone model of hard labor. All delivered in the loveliest prose.
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg: A strong debut novel about personal and community responses to tragedy. Clegg’s multivocal approach works quite well, though there are perhaps a few too many voices diluting the mixture. I like how the revelations of what really happened that night before the wedding to cause the fatal house fire come gradually, making you constantly rethink who was responsible and what it all means. The small-town Connecticut setting is a good one, but I’d question the decision to set so much of the book in Washington, where the bereaved June drives on a whim. For a tragic story, it’s admirably lacking in melodrama.
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg: Foodoir extraordinaire! I liked this even better than Delancey, which is a terrific book about opening a pizza restaurant in Seattle with her husband. Here we get the prequel: the death of her father Burg from cancer, time spent living in Paris, building a new life in Seattle, starting her now-famous food blog (Orangette), and meeting her husband Brandon through it. Each brief autobiographical essay is perfectly formed and followed by a relevant recipe, capturing precisely how food is tied up with her memories. Wizenberg’s very fond of salad, but also of cake, and every recipe is full-on in terms of flavors and ingredients.
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons: This was a random library book sale purchase, chosen almost entirely for the title. I set aside my usual dislike of child narrators and found an enjoyable voice-driven novella about a feisty ten-year-old who loses both her parents (good riddance to her father, at least) and finds her own unconventional family after cycling through the homes of some truly horrid relatives. Just as an example, her maternal grandmother sends her out to work picking cotton. The book is set in the South, presumably in the 1970s or 80s, so it’s alarming to see how strong racial prejudice still was.
The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel: I read this over several years, a handful each holiday season. There are some very unusual choices, including some that really have hardly anything to do with Christmas (e.g. one by Bessie Head). Still, it’s a nice book to have to hand, even if just to skip through. Manguel strikes a good balance between well-known short story writers, authors you might never think to associate with Christmas, and fairly obscure works in translation. Four favorites: “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote (overall favorite); “Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor,” John Cheever; “The Zoo at Christmas,” Jane Gardam; and “O’Brien’s First Christmas,” Jeanette Winterson.
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!