8 Short Novels Your Book Club Will Actually Finish

Very few very long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil.
Ian McEwan

I’ve never met a reader who doesn’t like short novels . . .What a short novel asks is that you commit, in one sitting, the same amount of time to reading as you frequently commit to a film or a football match. Make that commitment and, in many cases, the payoff outweighs the investment.
Cynan Jones

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Three books, 2,208 pages

Let’s face it: Most books are too long. If I’m going to read a book that’s 400 pages or more, it had better be spectacular. It seems to me that books, like people, have been getting heavier over the past 20 years — and recent studies confirm my suspicion. The Guardian says:

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

Even children’s books are getting longer; one study states that the average length of a middle-grade book published in 1996 was 137 pages, while in 2016 the average length was 290 pages.

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11 books, 1,825 pages

Peirene Press, a boutique publishing company based in London, specializes in short books. They “only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.”  What if book clubs, especially those whose members aren’t showing up or aren’t finishing (or even starting) the assigned reading, took a leaf out of Peirene’s book, so to speak, and only chose books that are 200 pages or shorter? Length does not necessarily correspond with complexity or quality. The Great Gatsby, the quintessential Great American Novel and required reading for almost every high school student, is only 180 pages long.

Book clubs are often too ambitious with their selections, choosing books that they think they should read, not books they really want to read, AND picking books that are very long.  One book club with which I’m intimately acquainted chose Barkskins by Annie Proulx (736 pages), with less than stellar results: no one finished the book. They still managed to have a great discussion, and everyone agreed the book was worth finishing. This group, all great readers, had much better luck with News of the World (224 pages), Homegoing (320 pages), and The Book of Unknown Americans (304 pages), which everyone in the group read and loved. (However, another favorite was A Little Life, 720 pages long.)

The average reading speed is about 300 words per minute. A trade paperback has roughly 300 words per page, depending on variables such as font size and amount of dialogue. So a 200-page book takes the average reader a little over three hours to read. I think anyone who’s committed to a book group can devote three hours to the monthly selection, unless it’s truly dreadful. Here are thumbnail reviews of ten books, both old and new, that you can polish off on a Saturday afternoon. The New York Times describes The Sense of an Ending as “a short book, but not a slight one”, which actually characterizes all these books.

9780307947727The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (163 pages)
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, this novel is much more accessible and plot-driven than the typical Booker Prize novel. Tony Webster, a retired historian in his sixties, receives an unusual bequest that causes him to reflect on his past. This was a favorite of my coed book group.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (184 pages)
Based on the author’s experience with “re-education” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, this is the tale of two city boys sent to the countryside for manual labor. They discover a hidden suitcase full of Western literature and begin their own program of re-education, introducing the village seamstress to Balzac, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and other forbidden writers.

9781101971727Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (177 pages)
Downton Abbey fans will love this book, which NPR says “is one of those deceptively spare tales (like The Sense of an Ending) that punch well above their weight.” Jane Fairchild, now a successful author in her nineties, was a housemaid to an upper-class British family after World War I — and was involved in an affair with one of the family’s wealthy neighbors. How can you resist a novel that opens with this sentence: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid . . .”?

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (159 pages)
When a Parisian bookseller comes upon a lost handbag containing a red notebook and no identification, he tries to track down the owner. This lovely little book about the power of kindness is just right for readers who find many contemporary novels “depressing”, and it has more depth than you might first imagine. (Two of Laurain’s other books are available in English translation as well — The President’s Hat and French Rhapsody. They’re both delightful, and barely above the 200-page cutoff.)

5497435-_uy200_Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (146 pages)
Manny DeLeon, manager of a failing Red Lobster, has just learned that his restaurant is closing and he’s been demoted to assistant manager at a nearby Olive Garden. Despite a blizzard that keeps customers and employees away on the restaurant’s final night, Manny won’t close early. It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but O’Nan (one of my favorite authors) has written an emotionally resonant reflection on the American Dream.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (192 pages)
Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length.

another-brooklyn-393x600Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (170 pages)
A runner-up for last year’s National Book Award, Another Brooklyn is a poetic coming-of-age story set in 1970s Brooklyn. I was tempted to race through, but forced myself to slow down and savor the spare and beautiful language.

The Common Reader by Alan Bennett (120 pages)
Queen Elizabeth II stumbles upon a bookmobile parked by Buckingham Palace and discovers a love of reading, with amusing and unexpected consequences. It’s a perfect book for any bookworm — I l love that the Queen keeps a reading journal.

Which do you prefer — a big fat book you can get lost in for days or weeks, or a short novel you can read in a couple of hours?

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What to Read Next — Winter 2017

img_2651It’s always better to have too much to read than not enough.
Ann Patchett

I have piles of brand new books to read, as well as dozens of galleys for upcoming books downloaded on my e-reader. I’m constantly amazed at the volume of high-quality books that appear every season, not to mention the number of talented debut authors. The creative spirit and the love for the written world in our world are stronger than ever.

How do I choose what to read next? Sometimes I’m crippled by indecision. I read a chapter of one so-so book and then of another, glancing over at the stack of January releases and thinking that there’s probably a gem buried in there . . . one that I will be excited to share with other readers.

9780385353540That’s why it’s so annoying when I read a book that disappoints me and that I can’t recommend. I take comfort in Will Schwalbe’s comments in Books for Living that “every book changes your life” and “there is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest”.  I would never call Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel, Idaho, a bad book, but I wish I’d devoted my treasured reading hours to a book that I could enthusiastically recommend. Ruskovich’s writing is spectacular, but to fall in love with a book, this middlebrow reader also needs a comprehensible story. I don’t need every loose end tied up, but I do want to understand something about the characters’ motivations — and I finished this overhyped book as bewildered as I was when I started. The New York Times disagreed with me (check out Smith Henderson’s review here), and so have other readers — if you’ve read Idaho, I’m curious to know what you think.)

Now . . . on to books that I encourage you to pick up this winter.

28251431-_uy200_If you like John Irving and Tom Wolfe . . .

The Nix by Nathan Hill
How could I have forgotten to recommend The Nix, which came out last summer? Hill’s debut novel is my favorite “big book” of 2016. Every once in a while, you want to wrap yourself up in a long novel that covers everything from family relationships to social history. Since you may be wondering what a “nix” is, I’ll fill you in. It’s a Norwegian house spirit that the main character, Samuel, hears frightening tales about during his childhood and is “the perfect organizing motif for a book about the small mistakes that become a life’s great tragedies, and secrets held too close and for too long”, according to NPR. The New York Times says the book is the “love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace”, a statement I can’t address since I’ve never been able to make my way through either of those authors’ books. I thought the satirical writing was reminiscent of John Irving and Tom Wolfe; John Irving himself compared Hill to Charles Dickens. Comparisons aside, The Nix is a creative tour de force and a joy to read.

img_1136If you enjoyed News of the World by Paulette Jiles . . .

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
I read this epistolary novel in a day, amazed at the suspense Rivers is able to build through letters, court documents, and diary excerpts. Based on historical records, The Second Mrs. Hockaday tells the story of a young girl, Placidia, who marries a Confederate officer, Major Hockaday, during the Civil War just days after they meet. When Hockaday returns home two years later, he learns that Placidia has been accused of bearing and murdering a baby while he was gone. What actually happened and why won’t Placidia speak in her own defense? This slim novel, perfect for book clubs, will inspire discussion about race and the legacy of slavery, women’s changing roles, forgiveness, and redemption,

30212107Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
I’ve just started reading Days Without End, but I am already enthralled. I think Sebastian Barry is one of our most underrated (and under-read) authors. When you read one of his books, you know you’re reading the work of a poet. You can choose at random almost any passage from any one of his novels and be struck by the beauty of the language. Here’s what the Guardian has to say about Barry’s latest novel: “Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative so propulsive that you must move on.”

Days Without End follows the adventures of teenager Thomas McNulty, who flees the Irish potato famine and signs up for the United States Army. Barry has written several other novels about the McNulty family (The Trial of Eneas McNulty, The Secret Scripture, and The Temporary Gentleman). Each one of them is well worth reading –as are his novels about the Dunne family — and you don’t need to read them in any particular order.

small-admissions-9781501122521_hrIf you’re in the mood for the print version of a romantic comedy (happy ending and all) . . .

Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel
I have a weakness for behind-the-scenes novels set in admissions departments. Small Admissions has a unusual twist: it takes place in the crazy world of New York day schools. The author apparently knows what she’s talking about, since she worked in the admissions department of a prestigious private school in New York. This novel is fun light reading, with plenty of characters you’ll love to hate and a satisfying romance.

If you loved A Gentleman in Moscow (and Doctor Zhivago) . . .

The Patriots by Sana Krasikov9780385524414
According to Yann Martel (Life of Pi), The Patriots is “a masterwork, a Doctor Zhivago for our times”, and indeed, it has much in common with that beloved classic. (Although I think the Count in A Gentleman in Moscow has more in common with Zhivago than any of the characters in The Patriots.) I absolutely loved this book, which is top-notch historical fiction about three generations, beginning with an idealistic young woman from Brooklyn who moves to Russia during the Stalin years and taking us through the tumultuous events in the Soviet Union in the 20th century to post-Cold War America.

y648Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago by Anna Pasternak
Journalist Anna Pasternak reveals the true story of the love affair between her great-uncle, author Boris Pasternak, and his muse, Olga Ivinskaya — the model for the fictional Lara in Doctor Zhivago.

What are you planning to read this winter? And how do you decide?

Secrets From the Eating Lab — Book Review

secrets-from-the-eating-lab-cover-1I urge you to get to your leanest livable weight and then, whatever it is, decide that it’s okay. Because your weight is not the point. You were not put on this earth to mold yourself into a perfect physical specimen.
Traci Mann, Secrets From the Eating Lab

I’ve never reviewed a diet book before. In fact, I’ve always thought that diet books were a waste of time and money. If you want to lose weight, there’s no quick fix. Eat less and exercise more. Honestly, on the cold and gray January day I picked up Traci Mann’s Secrets From the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, The Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again, I didn’t expect to be entertained or to learn much. I thought I’d skim the book so I could convince myself that a diet was a really bad idea.

Traci Mann, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Minnesota, where she founded the Health and Eating Lab.  Her area of expertise is the psychology of eating, dieting, and self-control. She has compiled research from dozens of psychological and medical studies to argue two major points: first, that weight is largely controlled by genetics, and second, that obesity is “not a death sentence”.

Secrets From the Eating Lab is not the only book to claim that diets don’t work for long-term weight loss, but according to psychotherapist Jean Fain, author of another “no diet” diet book, The Self-Compassion Diet, it’s the “most persuasive and entertaining”.  To whet your appetite, so to speak, here are a few examples of Mann’s wit and wisdom:

On willpower and self-control:

Sometimes it may look like people are doing an impressive job of resisting something when really they simply aren’t tempted by it. Maybe your friends who are so good at resisting cookies are just not that into cookies. People like that, are, after all, alleged to exist.

On dieting and shame:

There is no cause for guilt or shame about things you eat. Eating is not a moral act. Perhaps there are certain circumstances in which eating can be immoral, such as the occasional act of cannibalism, taking candy from a baby, or finishing your husband’s carton of salted caramel ice cream before he gets home from work.

On how people’s eating is influenced by their culture and other people:

Sometimes our family members have an unspoken influence on our eating. When I am sneaking thin slice after thin slice of Rice Krispie treats from a pan on my counter, I eat a precisely calibrated amount. I eat until right before so much is gone that the people in my household will kill me if I eat any more.

On the increase in portion sizes:

My favorite piece of evidence about the increase in portion sizes comes from a study comparing the size of the foods in different paintings of the Last Supper from over the centuries. To control for the different-sized paintings, the researchers did their comparisons by calculating a food-to-head ratio. Presumably heads have not gotten larger in that time. Over the years, however, the bread, entrees, and plates all did.

Yes, this is an entertaining diet book. Mann’s tone is chatty and humorous, making Secrets From the Eating Lab as fun to read as any novel you’d take to the beach. I particularly enjoyed reading about the studies conducted in Mann’s eating lab. Deception, Mann says, is necessary in eating research because if people know their eating habits are being studied, they will change their behavior. “We have to be a little sneaky,” Mann says.

As fascinating as I found Mann’s descriptions of research on eating, dieting, and willpower, I wasn’t entirely convinced by her arguments. I found myself wondering what studies weren’t included in the book. It’s hard to believe that people are genetically programmed to be obese, or that it’s truly healthy to be obese. Mann cites studies that claim that weight distribution (belly fat) is more unhealthy than extra weight. “It is the apple pattern that is problematic, not the pear pattern,” she says, adding that she knows “only one apple-shaped woman.” Really ??? Also, I wish she had addressed the issue of the increase in childhood obesity.

You won’t find any “secrets” in this book, but you will find some great commonsense tips for healthy eating. One of my favorites is to “get alone with a vegetable”. Don’t eat anything until you have eaten some vegetables, Mann says, because “there is only one contest that a healthy food has a fighting chance at winning: a contest between a healthy food and no food at all.”

Please excuse me while I go feast on some cucumber slices . . . there aren’t any Rice Krispie treats or salted caramel ice cream in my house!

Books for Living

Reading is the best way I know to learn how to examine your life. By comparing what you’ve done to what others have done, and your thoughts and theories and feelings to those of others, you learn about yourself and the world around you. Perhaps that is why reading is one of the few things you do alone that can make you feel less alone. It is a solitary activity that connects you to others.
Will Schwalbe, Books for Living

9780385353540“Attention Book-Lovers: Take the 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge”; “Around the Year in 52 Books”; “11 Tips to Read More in 2017, Because 2017 Is the Year You Conquer Your TBR
List” . . .

Along with dieting, exercising, and generally becoming better people, we’re also supposed to revamp our reading lives this year. It’s not enough to read what we enjoy — we’re supposed to “read harder”, which apparently means reading a “superhero comic with a female lead” and an “LGBTQ+ romance novel”. We’re advised to schedule reading time, the same way we’re supposed to squeeze in workouts.

I appreciate the message behind the articles offering advice for readers. Making time for reading is important, and so is reading outside our comfort zones. Many of them have great ideas; the Miami Herald recently published a terrific story, 9 Ways to Read More Books in 2017, which suggests, among other things, putting down your phone, reading audiobooks, and abandoning books you don’t enjoy:

If a book doesn’t grab you, give up. I have been told my 25-page rule is too hasty, so let’s make it 50 pages. If a book hasn’t grabbed you 50 pages in, move along and feel no guilt. It’s the author’s responsibility to reel you in, not yours to finish something you don’t like. I’m still bitter about the time I wasted on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch only to abandon it 200 pages in.

17370-men-and-women-performing-aerobic-exercises-pvHowever, I don’t see how reading a book “with a red spine” or one with “a cat on the cover” will enrich my reading life, and I have mixed feelings about what some of these articles seem to imply. They unfortunately convey the impression that reading is just another activity for self-improvement, akin to running on the treadmill. Put in your hour a day with a book by an author “with a different ethnicity than you” and you will be a better reader and a better person. I never liked the reading logs my children were required to keep in grade school. The well-intentioned logs implied that reading was a dreary task that had to be documented, conflicting with my view that reading was a pleasurable activity very different from memorizing multiplication tables. Flashlight under the covers, anyone?

Some of the “reading challenges” online do include inspiring suggestions for readers looking to expand their reading horizons. I particularly like the list posted on The Modern Mrs. Darcy, Reading for Fun: Put the Oomph Back in Your Reading Life. This challenge includes my favorite kind of book —  a “book about books or reading”.

Enter Will Schwalbe, who has written an entire book, Books for Living, about how books of all kinds can  help us “engage with the world, become better people, and understand life’s questions, big and small”. Some of the books that have changed his life, he says, “are undoubtedly among the great works of our time. Others almost certainly are not.” No book is a waste of time according to Schwalbe: “There is no book so bad that you can’t find anything in it of interest . . even “just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.”

9780804172707Books for Living contains 26 chapters, each focusing on a particular book that resonated with Schwalbe at a particular time in his life — and that continues to resonate with him. He discusses what led him to each book , the people in his life he associates with the book, and why it is important to him. The books range from children’s books (Stuart Little, Wonder) to classics (The Odyssey, David Copperfield) to contemporary fiction (A Little Life, The Girl on the Train).

How did he choose to read these books? Through trial and error, mostly:

I’m not a particularly disciplined or systematic seeker. I don’t give a great deal of thought to the books I choose—I’ll read anything that catches my eye. Most of the time, when I choose what I’m going to read, it has absolutely nothing to do with improving myself. Especially when I’m at my happiest, I’m unlikely to search for a book to make me happier. But it’s often during these periods of non-seeking that I’ve stumbled across a book that has changed my life.

I can’t imagine a better way to start your reading year than by picking up a copy of Books for Living. When I started the book, I began underlining. And underlining, and underlining — until I realized that I needed to stop, because I was underlining almost everything. (The first passage I underlined was in the first page of the introduction, when Schwalbe describes a terrifying recurring dream, in which he’s in an airport, about to miss his flight, when he realizes has nothing to read on the plane.)

Best wishes for a happy year of reading!

Schwalbe published an essay in the Wall Street Journal, The Need To Read, which is a wonderful distillation of Books for Living