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Archive for November, 2014

Twenty days into Novellas in November. The reading was a bit slower over the past ten days. I blame work. However, I did still manage to get 3 books finished. First, I picked up The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb, because it had been recommended on Twitter by Dan Rhodes (author of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, This is Life, and many more) whose books I adore. The Book of Proper Names is a darkly comic book about names, family, and destiny. The protagonist is a girl named Plectrude who has a tragic start to life, but is adopted by her aunt and uncle, and dreams of being a ballet dancer. I enjoyed the book, but I still prefer Dan Rhodes, who is a master at blending the odd, the funny, and the melancholy. You should all read Gold. 4 Stars to The Book of Proper Names.

Then my order of Mary Swan’s The Deep arrived, and I dove right in. This early novella of Swan’s uses the same polyvocal technique that she uses in her 2008 novel The Boys in the Trees. That book breaks my heart. It is an incredible meditation on community, family, and despair: a discourse on the things we can never know about each other. This novella is the story of twin sisters volunteering near the front lines in France in 1918. Swan uses the polyvocal narrative to create suspense, as the narratives of the sisters are basically contemporary to their war experience or recollections of their earlier lives, but the narratives of the others are memories told of the sisters. The story is interesting, but I found the sisters to be less compelling than they should have been. Swan has an incredible way with imagery, but (unsurprisingly, as this is an earlier work) the story doesn’t pack as much emotional punch as The Boys in the Trees. I would recommend that one as my favourite of her works. 4 stars to The Deep.

And finally, I decided to reread Shopgirl by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin). It’s been almost 15 years since I first read the book, but I am still surprised at the skill with which Martin manages to distill emotional meaning into the smallest details. The story is charming, but it also addresses complex questions in terms of the growth of its characters. I love the fact that each of the characters comes to (sometimes unpleasant) realizations about the way they treat themselves and other people. It was an absolute joy to return to this novella. Of course, before it’s time for the next reread, I will definitely be watching the film again.

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So, we are now 10 days in to the Novellas in November challenge (#NovNov on Twitter) and I’ve been having a smashing time. I’ve surprised myself by finishing 5 novellas already, three new reads and two rereads: Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith, Light Boxes by Shane Jones, Ticknor by Sheila Heti, All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I started Ticknor first, but was reading it before bed when I was able to focus more on the narrative and the language, so I actually finished Portuguese Irregular Verbs first because it was a commute read (and had the advantage of being absurd and amusing, which was a good kick-off to the entire endeavour), and finished Light Boxes second (which read very quickly, in part due to the fragmented nature of the narrative). I enjoyed the internal dialogue that Ticknor has with himself (the voice that constructs a narrative in his head and the voice that reveals the inaccuracies in that constructed narrative even as it is being shaped). Portuguese Irregular Verbs was a funny take on the pomposity of academia, and I may continue reading the other novellas in this trilogy (whether I will tackle them this month is unknown). Light Boxes is surreal and strange and basically a vision of my future because up here in the frozen north the idea of an endless February hits a little too close to home. I found the imagery in Light Boxes to be remarkable, almost cinematic at times, and now I can’t wait to read his new book, Crystal Eaters. All My Friends Are Superheroes was a single sitting read one evening, and it was an absolute joy to revisit (having originally read it in 2003) because it is funny and quirky and moving all at once (and of course, it left me pondering what my own superpower might be…). Train Dreams blew me away again (having originally read it in 2012), and I remain stunned that the Pulitzer Prize jury in 2012 did not award the prize to Johnson. This novella is an incredibly tight narrative of one man’s experiences in the northwest U.S. from the late 19th C. to mid-20th C. It is a profoundly moving story that encompasses a wide range of issues from masculinity and racism in America to settlement and the notion of progress.

I’ve really appreciated the sense of accomplishment that comes from being able to finish a book in a couple of short sittings without worrying about getting too far behind on my day-to-day work. From the mid-point of the semester, guilt usually prevents me from picking up anything lengthy, and then I languish without narrative meat to feed on. However, these novellas have satisfied my appetite for stories with humour and emotional heft, without the unrealistic commitment of hours at this busy time. I think everyone should pick up more novellas to have on hand for just such circumstances.

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Some of the novellas I have to choose from for the month of November.

Some of the novellas I have to choose from for the month of November.

I am embarking upon a month of reading novellas, inspired by Another Book Blog (http://anotherbookblog.com/2013/10/16/novellas-in-november/) which I heard about from http://reading-in-bed.com/, and I am really looking forward to it. Obviously, since I have a rather reading heavy day job (and a reading heavy second job, come to think of it), I won’t be able to read the 30-odd books in the photo. I am totally okay with that. My intention was to gather most of the novellas from my shelves so that I would have the broadest selection possible, enabling me to read for my mood. Some of the books in the piles are potential re-reads because I enjoyed them so much the first time around, but most of them are as yet unread. Anything under 200 pages is fair game for my reading pile. I will, of course, continue reading other books for the month of November, but my goal is to read eight to ten novellas in four weeks. If you have any recommendations, please leave a comment.

It should be evident from the photo that I will be reading quite a few novellas in translation, which I am quite excited about. There is also a good mix of male and female writers. There are several independent small presses that publish amazing novellas, and I recommend that you check out their catalogues to get your short narrative fix. My favourites include: New Directions, Biblioasis, Melville House, Peirene Press, Pushkin Press, Coffee House Press, and Dalkey Archive.

I’ve decided to start off with Ticknor by Sheila Heti from another great Canadian press, House of Anansi. I’ll endeavour to post weekly progress reports, but may have to resort to one massive final recap, because November is traditionally one of the busiest months for my day job. In any case, I hope that you will all consider picking up a novella this month to join in with the spirit of the thing. If you are on Twitter, watch for the hashtag #NovNov to keep an eye on what other participants are reading.

Here is a proper list of the books in the photo, plus a couple I discovered after the pic was taken. They are all novellas from my own library that I have not yet read, or have read, but would like to reread:

The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira – Cesar Aira

Conversations – Aira

Shantytown – Aira

All My Friends are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman

Professor Andersen’s Night – Dag Solstad

Magda – Meike Ziervogel

The Mansion – Alvaro Mutis

Dance with Snakes – Horacio Castellanos Moya

Agua Viva – Clarice Lispector

Point Omega – Don DeLillo

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret – Ondjaki

The Graveyard – Marek Hlasko

Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck

Ticknor – Sheila Heti

The Book of Proper Names – Amelie Nothomb

Motorman – David Ohle

The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am – Kjersti A. Skomsvold (Read this one last year. Marvellous, dark. Also, met the author. Awesome.)

My Beautiful Bus – Jacques Jouet

Light Boxes – Shane Jones

The Sandman – ETA Hoffmann

Last Night at the Lobster – Stewart O’Nan

The Prowler – Kristjana Gunnars (Read over a decade ago. Time to revisit.)

Stick Out Your Tongue – Ma Jian

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark (Read. Loved it. Probably get more out of it now.)

Shopgirl – Steve Martin (Read. Loved it. Time to reread.)

The Pleasure of My Company – Steve Martin (Read. Loved it. About time to reread.)

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Portuguese Irregular Verbs – Alexander McCall Smith

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances – Smith

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs – Smith

The Pharmacist’s Mate – Amy Fusselman

The Seas – Samantha Hunt

Travels in the Scriptorium – Paul Auster

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson (Read, and it is absolutely remarkable. Plan to reread.)

The Anxiety of the Goalie at the Penalty Kick – Peter Handke

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