This is the season to cuddle up inside and read. I wish someone would pay me to read all day because this is what I love the most. To be surrounded by my beloved books at all times. I read a lot but today I would like to highlight the novella. Some people count a novella (a short novel) as anything up to 250 pages, I’ve focused more on the 100-150 pages. Maybe there is something for you in my book pile of awesomeness. Enjoy!
This Is Pleasure A skilful, absorbing novella by Mary Gaitskill about Margot grappling with the news that her friend Quin, a fellow book editor, has been accused of multiple acts of sexual assault. The chapters, which are usually only a couple of pages each, alternate between M and Q, so you have this sort of narrative tussle between these friends of over 20 years. Margot has always been ambivalent about Quin’s behaviour (she refers to the stories as “awful/ funny”; enjoys his “rakishness”, his “dirtiness”) while Quin has always viewed himself as a “sensualist” and still, now, remains charmed by himself (he assumes these women will shuck off their victimhood soon enough and move on to something else). Margot can’t decide if she should turn her back on Quin – “this is where I don’t understand my own feelings” she admits – or if she even wants to. And what if she doesn’t? Is she as bad as him? A thought-provoking, nuanced book.
The Great Gatsby Bet you’ve never heard of this one! But this book by F. Scott Fitzgerald is so short, I like to re-read it fairly regularly (I find it very different to the film.) Set in the roaring twenties, Nick Carraway is writing from a sanatorium about his past friendship with a millionaire Jay Gatsby and his erstwhile lover, Daisy Buchanan. Sometimes I find this book a bit overrated (please feel free to fight me in the comments, I welcome a fiery defence of it), at other times I think it skewers greed, celebrity and the American Dream perfectly.
Heartburn How could I not. Nora Ephron’s 1983 book has gone through something of a revival for millennials and will no doubt have another revival on BookTok. It’s a piece of fiction (I’d call it auto-fiction) inspired by Ephron’s own life, when her husband Carl Bernstein left her 7 months pregnant and with a toddler, told through Rachel, a cookery writer and Mark, a dolt. It’s a gorgeous book – tender, waspishly witty, full of grit and pin-sharp observations – but I feel incredibly rageful when I read this book. Thankfully Ephron got her revenge by publishing it, against Bernstein’s will. If you haven’t read it, here’s a small excerpt of a bit that particularly tickles me, to whet your appetite:
“And then Mark started to cry. Mark started to cry. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed to me that if anyone was entitled to cry in this scene, it was going to be me; but the man had run off with my part. “I’m in a lot of pain”, he said.
There has been a lot written in recent years about the fact that men don’t cry enough… I would like to say two things about this. The first is that I have always believed that crying is a highly overrated activity: women do entirely too much of it, and the last thing we ought to want is for it to become a universal excess. The second thing I want to say is this: beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.”
Small Things Like These This is such a lyrical and profound little book by Claire Keegan, set in 1985 featuring father of five and coal and timber merchant, Bill Furlong, who is busy dropping off his goods ahead of Christmas. As he makes his daily deliveries he becomes increasingly concerned about a young girl in one of the Magdalene Laundries (church-run, state-sanctioned institutions in Ireland where “fallen women” and their children were kept in appalling conditions. It is estimated that 6,000 babies died in them and the last laundry, shockingly, was not closed down until 1996.) Furlong is used to keeping his head down – like everyone he knows does, like his wife advises – but he can’t just sit down with the papers and a pint on his one day off. He must put his head above the parapet. I’ve seen Small Things described as Dickensian, and I’d totally agree – Furlong is heroic, (or he puts it, “of foolish heart”) and this book is loving and hopeful.
Convenience Store Woman I’ve written about it a few times this year, but this is the most famous of Sayaka Murata’s 11 novels – though by no means the weirdest, I’m still haunted by Earthlings – about a convenience store worker called Keiko resisting Japanese society’s pressure to get married and have children. The only thing she wants to do is be in her beloved convenience store. It’s a quirky and charming story and very easy to read.
Terrific Mother My favourite of Lorrie Moore’s writing, this little story has been taken from the story collection, Birds of America and published by Faber in teeny tiny stand-alone clutch-bag size, costing 3.50 Euros, which I remember books actually used to cost 30 years ago. It’s about Adrienne who doesn’t want children but finds them always thrust into her arms anyway – and then one day there’s a terrible accident and she kills a baby. She goes into hiding for 7 months, but she’s lured out by a man who wants to be her husband and who takes her to an artist’s colony, where she is torn between allowing herself to live again, with the help of a philosophical masseuse named Ilke, and keeping herself locked inside a cage of guilt and shame and trauma. It’s very funny in parts and achingly lovely in others. Says Ilke of why people come to her for massages:
“It is because they are overeducated and can no longer converse with their own mothers. They have literally lost their mother tongue. So they come to me. I am their mother, and they don’t have to speak at all.”
Bonjour Tristesse If you didn’t read this as a tormented teenager, where were you? The Guardian once called Françoise Sagan “the French Scott Fitzgerald” and it’s true that Tristesse, published when she was just 18 (!) in 1954 has become a cult book. It tells the story of moody, nonchalant Cécile, who enjoys the sole attention of her widowed father – until his girlfriend, Anne, only a little older than Cécile, joins them on their summer holiday on the Riviera.
I re-read this a couple of years ago for a bookclub reading. The book thrums with authenticity – Sagan was 17 when she wrote it, Cécile is 17 – and teenage imperiousness: “I noticed that [Anne] was lightly but immaculately made-up. It seemed she never allowed herself to be really on holiday” but it’s also so sage and elegant about matters of the heart. It’s really astounding that she wrote it as a teenager.
Other novellas I have on my bedside to read:
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
Termush by Jeff VanderMeer
The Premonition by Banana Yoshimoto