Open Water is our first buddy read, for Contemporary week of Novellas in November (#NovNov). Look out for the giveaway running on Cathy’s blog today!
I read this one back in April–May and didn’t get a chance to revisit it, but I’ll chime in with my brief thoughts recorded at the time. I then take a look back at 14 other novellas I’ve read this year; many of them I originally reviewed here. I also have several more contemporary novellas on the go to round up before the end of the month.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (2021)
I always enjoy the use of second person narration, and it works pretty well in this love story between two young Black British people in South London. The title is a metaphor for the possibilities and fear of intimacy. The protagonist, a photographer, doesn’t know what to do with his anger about how young Black men are treated. I felt Nelson was a little heavy-handed in his treatment of this theme, though I did love that the pivotal scene is set in a barbershop, a place where men reveal more of themselves than usual – I was reminded of a terrific play I saw a few years ago, Barber Shop Chronicles.
Ultimately, I wasn’t convinced that fiction was the right vehicle for this story, especially with all the references to other authors, from Hanif Abdurraqib to Zadie Smith (NW, in particular); I think a memoir with cultural criticism was what the author really intended. I’ll keep an eye out for Nelson, though – I wouldn’t be surprised if this makes it onto the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist in January. I feel like with his next book he might truly find his voice.
- Assembly by Natasha Brown (also appears below)
- Poor by Caleb Femi (poetry with photographs)
- Normal People by Sally Rooney
Other Contemporary Novellas Read This Year:
(Post-1980; under 200 pages)
Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi
Assembly by Natasha Brown
Indelicacy by Amina Cain
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths
Tinkers by Paul Harding
An Island by Karen Jennings
Ness by Robert Macfarlane
Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
Broke City by Wendy McGrath
A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez
In the Winter Dark by Tim Winton
- Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner
- My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
- The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici
What novellas do you have underway this month? Have you read any of my selections?
The first four books for this summer’s colour theme took me from Australia to New York City to Nigeria, and into a mind plagued by depression.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003)
This was my last remaining unread book by Adichie, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I found it underwhelming. In comparison to her two later novels, and even her short stories (of which this reminded me the most), the canvas is small and the emotional scope limited. Kambili is a Nigerian teenager caught between belief systems: her grandfather’s traditional (“pagan”) ancestor worship versus the strict Catholicism that is the preserve of her abusive father, but also of the young priest on whom she has a crush. She and her brother try to stay out of their father’s way, but they are held to such an impossibly high standard of behaviour that it seems inevitable that they will disappoint him.
Adichie’s debt to her literary hero, Chinua Achebe, is evident from the first line onward: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.” It also sets up, with a certain lack of subtlety, the way in which religion is wielded as a weapon in the novel. Meanwhile, the title suggests rarity, beauty, and fragile hope. Had this been my first taste of Adichie’s fiction, I probably would have stopped there, so in a way I’m glad that I read her first book last. Now I just have to wait with tapping fingers for the next one… (Free from a neighbour)
Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières (2016)
A sweet coming-of-age novella about a boy moving to the Australian Outback to live with his grandfather in the 1960s and adopting a stray dog – a red cloud kelpie, but named Blue. I didn’t realize that this is a prequel (to Red Dog), and based on a screenplay. It was my third book by de Bernières, and it was interesting to read in the afterword that he sees this one as being suited to 12-year-olds, yet most likely to be read by adults.
Mick’s father is dead and his mother has had a breakdown, so Granpa is the only one around to look after him, though out at the cattle station the boy mostly fends for himself, having adventures with stinging lizards and cyclones and bushfires and cursed caves. All along, Blue and his motorcycle are constant companions. Taylor Pete, a wry Aboriginal man, and Betty Marble, a pretty blonde hired as his teacher, are two amusing secondary characters.
This reminded me of Gerald Durrell’s writing about his childhood, and was pleasant airport and plane reading for me: light and fun, but not fluffy, and offering an armchair traveling opportunity. I especially liked the Australian lingo and the blue and black illustrations at the head and foot of each chapter, with a flipbook-style cartoon of a running dog in the upper right corner of each odd-numbered page. (Public library)
Emerald City by Jennifer Egan (1993)
Each of these 11 stories has a fantastic first line – my favorite, from “Sacred Heart,” being “In ninth grade I was a great admirer of Jesus Christ” – but often I felt that these stories of relationships on the brink did not live up to their openers. Most take place in a major city (Chicago, New York, San Francisco) or a holiday destination (Bora Bora, China, Mexico, Spain), but no matter the setting, the terrain is generally a teen girl flirting with danger or a marriage about to implode because the secret of a recent or long-ago affair has come out into the open.
Recurring elements include models/stylists/fashion photographers and people getting conned out of money. The title story is set in New York, described as “a place that glittered from a distance even when you reached it.”
To me the best story, for offering something a bit different, was “One Piece,” about a brother who seems to hurt everything he touches but comes through for his sister when it counts. Egan’s characters are caught between emotional states: remembering a golden age, regretting a moment that changed everything, or hoping that the best is yet to come. “The Stylist” was the one story that reminded me most of A Visit from the Goon Squad. As soon as I closed the book, I found that I had trouble remembering details of any of the stories. (Little Free Library in suburban Philadelphia, May 2019)
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (1990)
(Visible darkness must have a colour, right?) I had long wanted to read this and finally came across a secondhand copy the other day. What I never realized was that, at 84 pages, it is essentially an extended essay: It started life as a lecture given at Johns Hopkins in 1989, was expanded into a Vanity Fair essay, and then further expanded into this short book.
Approaching age 60 and on his way to Paris to accept a prestigious award, Styron could feel his depression worsening. Rather than being proud or grateful, he could only doubt his own talent. The pills his doctor prescribed him for insomnia exacerbated his feelings of despair. When he threw away the journal he had been keeping, he knew it was a potential prelude to suicide. Hearing a piece by Brahms on a movie soundtrack was the one thing that reminded him of the beauty of the world and the richness of his life, enough for him to reach out and get seven weeks of treatment at a mental hospital, which was what saved him. These experiences, recounted in sections VI and VII, are the highlight of the book.
Styron also muses on the creative temperament and the ubiquity of suicide among writers, especially those who, like him, had an early trauma (his mother died when he was 13). The prose is forthright and intimate, ably evoking a psychic pain that is “quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it.” This made me want to try his fiction, too. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
“each day’s pattern of distress exhibits fairly predictable alternating periods of intensity and relief. The evening’s relief for me—an incomplete but noticeable letup, like the change from a torrential downpour to a steady shower—came in the hours after dinnertime and before midnight, when the pain lifted a little and my mind would become lucid enough to focus on matters beyond the immediate upheaval convulsing my system.”
“Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily—sought also, I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”
Next two in progress: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy and Ruby by Ann Hood.
Read any of these? Interested?
On Saturday my husband and I headed to Hungerford to see The Bookshop Band for the second time. A year and a half ago I first had the chance to see them live at the 2014 Hungerford Literary Festival, when they gave a performance tied in with Rachel Joyce’s release of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.
The band formed about five years ago to provide music for author events at their local bookshop, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, England. Since then they’ve written somewhere between 120 and 150 songs inspired by books. Their basic genre is indie folk, with plenty of guitar, ukulele and cello as well as a bunch of improvised percussion and three intermingled voices. Depending on the book in question, though, the feel can vary widely, ranging from sweet to bizarre or haunting. Especially when I’ve read the book being sung about, it’s intriguing to see what the musicians have picked up on – often something very different from what I would as a reader and reviewer.
This year the band (now down to two members) is making an effort to record and release all their songs in 10 albums. I participated in a crowdfunding project so am lucky enough to receive all their new releases in digital format before they’re available as printed CDs. The first album is Curious and Curiouser, the title track of which was inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Other sets of songs are based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the steampunk novel The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, while “Once Upon a Time,” a commission for radio, strings together famous first lines from fiction.
My favorite Bookshop Band song (so far) is “Bobo and the Cattle,” inspired by Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Two great ones new to me from Saturday’s performance were “Faith in Weather,” based on Central European fairy tales, and “You Make the Best Plans, Thomas,” about Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
You can listen to lots of their songs on their Bandcamp page and dozens of videos of their performances are on YouTube and Vimeo (I’ve linked to several above). When performing events they often get the authors to play with them: Louis de Bernières pitched in with mandolin on a song about The Dust that Falls from Dreams, and Yann Martel played glockenspiel while promoting The High Mountains of Portugal.
We had started off the day with lunch at a Berkshire country pub, The Pot Kiln, where we didn’t mind the 40-minute wait for food because we had books and half-pints of beer and cider to while away the time over as sunshine poured through the windows. The menu is mostly based around game shot by the chef himself in the fields opposite the pub, so we indulged in a venison and wild boar hot dog and venison Scotch eggs before setting off on a windy several-mile walk near Combe Gibbet and then continuing on to Hungerford.
Now for the goody bag: on the venue tables the owner of Hungerford Bookshop had placed a ten-question literary quiz to work on and hand in during the intermission. I was fairly confident on some of my answers, had a guess at the others, and after literally about 45 minutes of wrestling with anagrams finally figured out that “Lobbing Slates” gives the name of novelist Stella Gibbons. We won with 7 out of 10 correct; an elderly lady joked that we’d Googled all the answers, but I pointed out that we don’t own a smartphone between us! Now, I suspect we were actually the only entry, but that doesn’t diminish our accomplishment, right?! I was delighted to win a couple of free books I hadn’t necessarily intended on reading but now certainly will, plus a metal bookmark and a notebook, all in a limited-edition “Books Are My Bag” tote designed by Tracey Emin.
All in all, a fantastic and mostly bookish day out!
If you live in the UK and get the chance, don’t hesitate to go see The Bookshop Band play; they’re touring widely this year.
Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy, are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease?
Strong words there, from Virginia Woolf in “How Should One Read a Book?” I’m not quite so fervently opposed to these six books I abandoned recently, but I do share Woolf’s feeling of having had my time wasted. Particularly since I started as a freelance book reviewer, I’ve noticed that I am not very patient with my leisure reading: if a book doesn’t totally grab me and keep me turning the pages with rapt interest, I’m more likely to leave it unfinished. Better if I can do that before spending too much time with a book, but sometimes I approach the halfway point before finally giving up.
Below I give brief write-ups of the abandonees. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.
Of Love and Desire by Louis de Bernières
Like so many, I enjoyed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin but haven’t tried much else from de Bernières. These are love poems: many of them Greek-influenced; most of them sentimental and not very interesting. I marked out one passage I liked, but even it then turns into a clichéd relationship poem: “I looked behind and saw the long straight line of my mistakes, / Faithful as hounds, their eyes alert, trailing in my wake. But / They weren’t dogs, they were women, some fair, some dark …” (from “Mistakes”). [Read the first 25 pages.]
Yuki Chan in Brontë Country by Mick Jackson
The premise for this one – young Japanese woman visits the Brontë sites in Yorkshire as a way of reconnecting with her departed mother – sounded so interesting, but the third-person narration is very flat and detached. It makes Yuki and all the other characters seem like stereotypes: the fashion-obsessed Asian girl, the horde of Japanese tourists. I also noticed that far too many sentences and paragraphs start with “She.” I couldn’t be bothered to see how it would turn out. [Read the first 26%.]
Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
I’d read Jacobson’s three most recent novels and liked them all well enough. He’s certainly your go-to author if you want a witty discussion of the modern Jewish “persecution complex.” I think the problem with this one was that I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be: a contemporary Jewish novel, or a Hebrew fable, or some mixture thereof. Shylock is pretty much dropped in as is from The Merchant of Venice, so it’s unclear whether he’s Strulovitch’s hallucination or a time traveler or what. The exasperated father characters are well drawn, but their flighty daughters less so. I just got to a point where I didn’t care at all what happened next, which to me was the sign to give up and move on to something else. [Read the first 43%.]
As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner
The writing is measured and lovely, and I appreciated the picture of late-1940s life for a Jewish family, but the pace was killing me: this is set in one summer, but with constant flashbacks and flash-forwards to other family stories, such that although we learn on page 1 that a character has died, even by the 60% mark I still had not learned how. Also, the narrator is telling everything in retrospect from 1999, but there is too little about her life at that present moment. I would direct readers to Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point instead. [Read the first 60%.]
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
I’d read such rave reviews of this novel set in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, and I’ve always meant to try something by Jim Shepard, so this seemed an ideal place to start. I decided to stop because although this is a fairly believable child’s voice, it is only being used to convey information. To me the spark of personality and the pull of storytelling are lacking. I felt like I was reading a history book about the Holocaust, subtly tweaked (i.e. dumbed down and flattened) to sound like it could be a child’s observations. [Read the first 53 pages.]
Georgia by Dawn Tripp
Who doesn’t love Georgia O’Keeffe’s dreamy paintings of flowers and southwestern scenes? Initially I loved her tough-as-nails voice in this fictionalized autobiography, too, but as the story wore on it felt like she was withholding herself to some degree, only giving the bare facts of (dry, repetitive) everyday life and (wet, repetitive) sex scenes with 24-years-her-elder photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Call me impatient, but I couldn’t be bothered to stick around to see if something actually happened in this novel. I think I’d be interested in glancing through O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s correspondence, though, just to see how the voices compare to what Tripp has created here. [Read the first 48%.]