Little Books: Why Short Novels Keep Me Reading
I would love to be an avid reader, the kind of person who devours books by the truckload. I used to be. Back before I had a full adult life, back when I had time to spend my spare hours reading, I inhaled novels like oxygen. Now my “spare” hours are full of all the things that I couldn’t get done during my “work” hours. I read in between things now—on the bus in between work and home, in the parking lot while I wait for my husband to come out of a store, in waiting rooms whenever I have to go to the doctor/salon/veterinarian/etc., and sometimes when I’m walking down the sidewalk. (I have been known to walk into things doing this, and once tripped over a curb and landed flat out on the sidewalk in front of busy morning work traffic, so this is not a practice I recommend, except for desperate readers.)
Because my current reading life is conducted in such short snippets of time, I’ve lately been singing the praises of smaller novels, what I fondly refer to as “little books.”
I’ve never figured out the difference between a novella and a short novel, but for the sake of this conversation, I’m going to say that a short novel is about 200 pages, give or take, and is bound as a stand-alone read. By these rules, my favorite novellas don’t count (Mark Helprin’s “Ellis Island,” Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills,” Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” etc.) because they are generally published with the addendum “and other stories,” as in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.
Classic examples of great American short novels might include Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, or any number of John Steinbeck’s novels: Of Mice and Men, or Tortilla Flat, or Cannery Row. But more recently, I’ve read some wonderful little books that seem to have flown under the literature radar.
I loved Isabel Miller’s Patience & Sarah. Set in 19th century New England, this little book is a historical romance about two women who defy the puritanical conventions and unbending rules of their society in order to pursue a life together. Without a gay community to support them, without a blueprint of how two women might form a marriage in their time, Patience and Sarah are soulful pioneers and engaging protagonists who come together to create an extraordinarily satisfying little novel.
Neil Gaiman’s newest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is another perfect example of a little book with a big punch. There is no doubt that Neil Gaiman is a master of speculative fiction, and I would venture to say that this is his best work since Stardust. Yes, there is magic and yes, there is mythology, and yes, the world must be saved from evil, and fortunately there are guardians to help us. Part of what makes all of that so satisfying in this less-than-200-pages novel is the fact that it’s told as a reminiscence, a buried memory from childhood that surfaces for the narrator at the same time that it does for the reader. It’s a scrumptious little read.
I’m also a big fan of Katarina Mazetti’s wonderful little book, Benny & Shrimp. Translated from Mazetti’s native Swedish, it was already an international bestseller by the time it came to the United States. Publisher’s Weekly said it would probably only “…hold appeal for fans of quirky women’s fiction and Swedish novels…” but my husband enjoyed this charming story about Benny the dairy farmer and Shrimp the librarian as much as I did, and he’s never read “women’s” fiction or a Swedish novel in his life. Benny & Shrimp is a quirky novel, true, which is one of its delights. It’s pure fun and a perfect book to read in the snippets of time between all the busyness of life.