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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Size: 8 Small Books You Should Read

Have you ever read a novel that was 400+ pages long and at the end you realize that it could have been an excellent short story?

Brevity is not easy.

I recently finished a short novel and was impressed that the author was able to pack more storytelling into fewer than 200 pages than most long novels I’ve read. Heck, she even packed more storytelling into the first paragraph than should be humanly possible.

(Elena Ferrante is a genius, yall.)

It got me thinking about the books that are small, but mighty. Here are 8 books that are fewer than 200 pages that you should read now.

Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante


If intensity could be defined by a book, it would be this one. Woah. It is one of those hold-on-to-your-hat this will be uncomfortable and may induce anxiety but wow that was one heckuva ride types of books. The first paragraph sets the stage (see above) and then you’re off. It’s like climbing into the mind of a woman who thought she had everything together and figured out and is suddenly very aware that this is not so. I could say more, but I couldn’t say it better than Ferrante, so just go read the first paragraph and, well, the rest of the novel because you won’t be able to look away.

A Mercy – Toni Morrison


Set in the 1600s in Colonial America, Morrison tells the story of slavery from the perspective of several distinct characters but mainly focuses on the story of a naive teenage girl, Florens, who works as a slave on a small farm in Maryland. The chapters alternate between the voice of Florens who is writing a confessional to a lover and the other characters tell their stories one at a time in the even-numbered chapters. The effect is you get a lot of points of view of a haunting tale and all in fewer than 200 pages.

The All of It – Jeanette Haien


This is one of those novels I read quickly and then it kind of stuck around with me. Set in Ireland, the story focuses on a woman who is grieving her husband. Or at least we think he’s her husband. We, and the priest she is telling her story to, find out that things aren’t always what they appear to be.


Desperate Characters – Paula Fox

9780393351101If there were a predecessor to the intensity of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment it would be Paula Fox. Once again you find yourself quickly in the middle of a story of a woman who thinks she has everything together and then… a cat bites her. And it’s all spinning out of control from there. Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, uses the novel as an example of excellent paragraphing. That certainly is the case, but Fox also excels with narration, gesture, and character development in the novel. And does this all in 170 pages.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers – Max Porter

9781555977412If you like weird books, then, hello, here you go – grief in this short novel takes the form of a crow who has moved in to the home of a widower and his young children. It’s both painful and beautiful to read. If you aren’t in to weird books then this one might be better saved for later, when you would find a crow embodying grief would be a thing you could actually connect with.

Another Brooklyn – Jacqueline Woodson

9780062359995I’ve recommended this one before, but it’s worth adding to the short but mighty list.

It’s the story of a black girl who moved with her father and brother to Brooklyn from Tennessee in the 70s. This short novel is packed with thoughtful insights about our memories coming into contact with hard truths.

Chronicle of a Last Summer – Yasmine El Rashidi

A diary-like story of a woman9780770437312 (who starts out, in this novel, as a girl) growing up and recording her life through successive revolutions in Egypt. El Rashidi uses the character’s voice to convey growth and maturity in this coming-of-age story. As a reader you “grow up” with her as she becomes more politically and personally aware.


Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong


You probably are not used to laughing out loud when reading about dementia, but Khong made me smile, laugh, cringe, and cry. It is a diary-like tale of an adult woman moving home to help her parents as her father’s dementia takes him away from a job that he loves.

Farewell to #SJBookClub: 8 Books to Read About Criminal Justice, Race & Immigration

I remember talking to Kerry about her idea for a social justice book club. She was worried, rightly so, that a title like that would be a battle cry for the trolls. She came up with an elegant solution: #SJBookClub.

I participated in the virtual book club at first to support a friend, but I quickly realized that my literary fiction obsession was keeping me away from some very important books written by some very intelligent people. I was introduced to Bryan Stevenson, who reminded me to throw fewer stones. To Jesmyn Ward, who opened my eyes to experiences I never knew were happening less than an hour from my childhood home. It got me all riled up about our (failing) criminal justice system. It pushed me to read broader.

For that I am thankful.

Kerry announced earlier this month that she is officially retiring the club. As a participant who hasn’t participated in a year I support that decision. Sometimes these clubs or lists or books pop up just when we need them, and then fade away when we need to focus on something else.

I wanted to honor the club in a small way. I put together this list of books that you should read. Some were books we read as a club (those are * starred), others are not. All have influenced me. And, as I want to continue this journey, please comment any other books you think I should add to my list!

Criminal Justice System

  1. Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson*
  2. The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander*

Thoughts on Race

  1. The Men We Reaped – Jesmyn Ward*
  2. The Fire This Time – Essay collection edited by Jesmyn Ward
  3. Between the World and Me – Ta’Neishi Coates


  1. Enrique’s Journey – Sonia Nazario*
  2. Tell Me How It Ends – Valeria Luiselli

The Masterful Paula Fox: Readers’ Workshop Roundup

For this month’s Readers’ Workshop, we read Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters with the goal of paying attention to paragraphs.

So what did we notice? That Fox is a master at dialogue and paragraphing.

Jonathan Franzen agrees. In the novel’s introduction, he calls Fox’s prose a pleasure, and notes that her sentences are “small miracles of compression and specificity, tiny novels in themselves.”

desperateSome may say the title is not catchy enough, but most of the Readers’ Workshop participants agreed that it’s apt. The book is filled with literally desperate characters. (One person mentioned they kept referring to the novel as “Desperate Creatures,”at first accidentally but soon realized they might be on to something).

Even though most of us wanted to have a nice, stiff drink while reading it, we appreciated the writing, how human the characters felt, and the way that Fox moved us. She made us feel uncomfortable, and perhaps even desperate.

And yet some members said they read the novel twice or were in the process of re-reading it. A testament to the odd draw that Fox seems to have on readers – you cause us discomfort and we come back for seconds.

Fox passed away this month, she was 93. Several club members recommended reading the New York Times obituary, and I’m glad I did. Knowing more about her life helped put some of the themes and the setting of the novel in perspective.

This was our third month of reading closely per Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. What have we gotten out of it so far? Some are finding it to be a hard habit to instill – they have to consciously remind themselves to slow down and read closer (myself included). Others have decided to continue reading for plot first and then taking time after finishing a novel to reflect on the writing.

Regardless we are meeting each month and having thoughtful discussions about the novels we read and the writing we are learning to appreciate even more.

Watch This, Read That: Books and Movies Made for One Another

It’s not often when you can watch a movie adapted from a book and really enjoy it, so that’s not what this list is about. Instead, I’ve rounded up some movies and books that are better together.

Watch: Boy. Read: The Bone People 

booksboyBoy is one of those quirky and sweet films you can’t get out of your head. Set in New Zealand, it’s a coming-of-age story of a young boy whose absent father isn’t quite the hero he thought he was.

Meanwhile, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, is also set in New Zealand and also has a young boy as a main character who is dealing with his own set of issues – being orphaned in a shipwreck and being physically abused. It’s a challenging and complex book that causes you to rethink what you know about the very flawed characters. Having said that, it’s one of those books you’ll hug after you finish reading it.

Watch: Brooklyn. Read: Another Brooklyn

booksbrooklynOscar-nominated Brooklyn tells the story of a young Irish immigrant who moves to the U.S. in the 1950s in search of more job opportunities. She falls in love with an Italian-American, but unexpectedly has to return home to Ireland. While there, she has to decide between her old and new homes.

Fast forward a couple of decades and you’re still in Brooklyn, but with Jaqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn you get the story of a black girl who moved with her father and brother to Brooklyn from Tennessee in the 70s. The short book is packed with thoughtful insights about our memories coming into contact with hard truths.

Watch: The Dressmaker. Read: The Luminaries

books2aHave you seen The Dressmaker yet? It is one dark, bizarre tragedy of a movie. Kate Winslet shines. Set in Australia, a young woman returns to her provincial hometown after launching a successful career as a dressmaker.

Elanor Catton’s The Luminaries is set in New Zealand during the gold rush and follows a very mysterious, twisting story with a dozen main characters. The connection between these two is a little harder to make, I know. But just trust me on this one.

Watch: The Railway Man. Read: Narrow Road to the Deep North

booksrailThe Railway Man starts with a wife trying to understand her husband’s psychological problems. As a young man, he was in a Japanese POW camp during World War II where he was forced to work on the Thai Burma Railway. The wife and a close friend try to help him overcome the trauma of his youth.

Although The Railway Man is an adaptation of a book by the same name, the film shares a lot of similarities with the Man Booker Winning Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. In the book, an Australian doctor becomes a war hero after surviving a Japanese POW camp tasked with building the Burma Railway.

Watch: Spotlight. Read: The Burglary

books2spotYou watch Spotlight and you realize how the absolutely unglamorous work of investigative journalism can have a profound impact on so many lives.

You read The Burglary by Betty Medsger and you see how the brave actions of unlikely citizens (in conjunction with the help of a journalist to share their story) can bring down an institution as big as the FBI. More from me about that book here.

The Energy in Philip Roth’s Sentences: Readers’ Workshop Roundup

What makes a sentence great? Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer says it’s difficult to quantify but that when you read strong, vigorous, and clear sentences it makes you want to get out a pen and paper and start diagramming sentences.

For the second Readers’ Workshop we focused on sentences and how Philip Roth uses sentences in the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral.

Authors can write sentences for grammar, clarity or rhythm.

Grammar makes the reader comfortable – we expect grammatical sentences.

Clarity is a higher ideal than grammatical correctness, so if a writer needs to break a rule to get a point across they will do so. But it’s deliberate and well thought out.

Finally a writer may choose to write a sentence for rhythm, and possibly choose a slightly wrong word to make the sentence more musical.

9780525432838We saw examples of all of this in Roth’s sentences, which Prose describes as energetic and varied, with fragments scattered among full sentences.

The energy in the sentences can be felt in the rhythm that Roth uses quite often – one long sentence followed by three to four short sentences. Roth uses brief sentences (even fragments) much like a drum beat. You can almost feel this build up of tension as the 400-page lament keeps spilling out.

One thing we almost all agreed on – American Pastoral is a challenging read. The content, the characters, even those beautiful sentences can be intense.

A man in the book club who is the same age as Roth (and also grew up in the Northeast and is also Jewish) said that Roth’s books are so familiar to him. It’s people he knew. It’s the people he grew up with. It’s his father, his friends. On the other hand, a woman who is the same age as Roth said that even though the characters and life experiences were so different from her own, she felt that it was very real.

American Pastoral is very male-centric, and many of us noted how the narrator and the main character really misunderstood the female characters in the novel. It was a stark contrast from last month with Alice Munro. One club member suggested that Munro should write the story of one of the female characters (the speech therapist) and we all agreed that was an excellent idea.

So, Alice, we’re waiting.

For March we’re learning about paragraphs and reading Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. Won’t you join us?

Readers’ Workshop: Why You Should Read Fiction Word-By-Word

Have you ever struggled with describing exactly why you like or dislike a book? Maybe you enjoyed the plot, related to the characters, but for some reason you wouldn’t recommend it to others.

y648I’ve had this problem for a long time. Usually my response would be, “well, the writing isn’t great.” But what did I mean by that? What made the writing mediocre?

Then I read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and suddenly I had the knowledge and tools to notice a beautifully crafted sentence, natural dialogue, and unforgettable details. The main idea is to read slowly and closely—word by word. When we read for plot we can just fly through a book, but Prose advocates reading analytically by paying attention to style, detail, dialogue, diction and how sentences were formed and information conveyed.

Because this book made such an impact on my reading, I am leading a book club called Readers’ Workshop throughout 2017. It’s held the second Thursday of every month (except December) at 7 p.m. at the Curious Iguana bookstore in Frederick, MD.

We are using Reading Like a Writer as a reference guide and we’ll read one chapter a month as well as a work of fiction. We’ve only met once so far, and already I’ve learned a lot from the participants. So I am planning to write blog posts summarizing some of the discoveries we make as a group.

9780679732709This past Thursday we read the chapter on the importance of words (Chapter 2) and Alice Munro’s short story collection, Moons of Jupiter.

Prose describes Munro’s writing as plain, sparse and Spartan. Although it seems effortless, every word “challenges you to think of a more direct, less fussy way to say what she’s saying.”

The club members agreed with Prose’s characterization and pointed out that despite the fact that she uses such plain language and short sentences, the stories are very complicated and dense and tackle difficult subjects like psychological abuse.

One person pointed out that Munro has a lot of respect for her readers—she trusts that we’ll be able to figure out the meaning and depth in her stories.

Another member said that her writing is almost as sparse and spare as poetry, but that she has a precision that is exact. We may not have loved every story in the collection, but we could all agree that you are rewarded when you slow down and pay attention to Alice Munro’s language.

The Few Americans Who Won a Nobel in Literature – Five Books I Recommend

Today the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to an American.

Did you know that only about a dozen American writers have won the Nobel in Literature (and a few of those came to the U.S. as adults)? The New Yorker has an interesting piece about why the U.S. has been snubbed.

Some could see today’s award as yet another snub to American literature. Why? Because the prize went to Bob Dylan.

Yes, that Bob Dylan.

Instead of focusing on that, let’s look at some of the American authors who have received that coveted prize. There are some heavy hitters on the list – Hemingway. Steinbeck. Faulkner. Instead I’ll share five books I recommend from Americans who won a Nobel Prize in Literature.

1) Joseph Brodsky – Less Than One

This book is a collection of essays that delve into everything from traveling to poetry to Soviets. I blogged about a snippet from one of the essays here. As someone who finds reading poetry quite difficult, I appreciated the almost lecture-like dissections of poets and poetry in some of the essays.

2) Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon

Morrison is such a gem to American literature. Song of Solomon was the first book I read by her and I was wowed.

3) Czeslaw Milosz – Issa Valley

When I finished this book, I made a note that Milosz was a Polish Mark Twain. The book’s child protagonist lives an idyllic life in a village deep in the forests of Eastern Europe. It’s hard not to imagine Huck Finn.

4) Isaac Bashevis Singer – Meshugah

Meshugah means nuts in Yiddish, and, boy, can this book be nutty. The novel is about Holocaust survivors in New York City in the 50s and the narrator is a Yiddish columnist who gets entangled with a much younger married woman. There’s love. Sin. Entrapment.

5) Saul Bellow – Humboldt’s Gift

Humboldt’s Gift is a bit of a neurotic look at the life of writers (this is perhaps why I enjoyed it).

Finding Common Themes in Four Books About Immigrants

Immigration has been a hot topic this campaign season and, as the spouse of an immigrant, I get frustrated with the misinformation, distrust and xenophobia that’s been dominating the national conversation.

What is life really like for immigrants? Obviously there isn’t a universal experience, but we can turn to fiction to help us discover some common themes among the different categories of immigrants. Read these four award-winning books to get a glimpse of the lives of a variety of immigrants.

sympathizer1) The Refugee: The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen

The 2016 Pulitzer prize winner follows the story of a Vietnamese man who is an undercover communist agent during the Vietnam War. A large portion of the story is set in California where the main character lives as a refugee with other Vietnamese who are having to endure the transition of having been esteemed military leaders and are now forced to live unassuming and impoverished lives in the U.S. This is definitely a common theme among refugees and immigrants who end up in America and have to start all over again. This time from the very bottom.

loss2) The Immigrant Without a Visa: The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this book follows the lives of two Indians, including one who is an immigrant living and working in the U.S. illegally. This novel does an excellent job of debunking the fantasy of many immigrants that they will make tons of money quickly in the U.S. and can either send money home or just move back home. This is hard to do even when you have a visa, but even harder if you’re not legally able to work.

americanah3) The Student Visa: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

Americanah (winner of the National Book Critics Circle award) is a novel about an immigrant from Nigeria
on a student visa, which is a good contrast to the story of the visa-less immigrant. As great of an opportunity as it may be to get a visa to study in the United States, one common problem students have is that they have no way to legally earn money even while in school. Only the most privileged of us are able to get through college without working a part-time (or full-time) job at the same time. When I shared parts of the book with my husband he would say, “that’s too real.” This quote was one of those.

They would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.

maladies4) The Immigrant, Permanent Resident, Naturalized Citizen: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpar Lahiri

The final category is of those immigrants who live and work in the United States legally and may even have become citizens. Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories focuses on the lives of Indian immigrants, but reading the stories I could relate to the challenges and themes as a wife of an Eastern European immigrant. The stories focus a lot on learning to live in a new, vastly different culture than your own, which is something most immigrants will experience.

A Stack of Seven Links on Criminal Justice

Criminal justice has been on my mind this year. I just finished reading the third book for the social justice book club (hosted by Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm), which have all had a criminal justice focus. Today you’re getting seven criminal justice links.

Put It in Perspective

Why criminal justice? One of my favorite quotes from the first social justice book club book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson is still this one:

We are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

9781595581037Link 1: I shared some thoughts about Just Mercy and that quote here.

Link 2: I kept thinking about Stephenson’s quote while reading this month’s book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Alexander did a nice job summing up the danger of a society that doesn’t see people as more than the worst thing they’ve done.

Criminals are the one social group in America we have permission to hate.

Kerry asked us what surprised us most about Alexander’s book. To me, the most shocking things stem from this idea of “permission to hate.”

What Happens When We Hate?

Permission to hate is a great opportunity for police state tactics to emerge. The Fourth Amendment is intended to protect us from unwarranted search and seizure, but in the past few decades our rights have slowly eroded in several key supreme court cases that Alexander summarizes in her book.

Link 3: Supreme Court Justice Douglas puts it nicely in his dissent in Terry v Ohio.

To give the police greater power than a magistrate [judge] is to take a long step down the totalitarian path.

As we’ve seen in the past year or so, these stops and searches can and have turned deadly. Link 4: That’s why I love Zeynep Tufekci’s thoughts on this topic in this Twitter thread.

Permission to hate also manifests itself:

In prison conditions. Link 5: Ramen is the new cigarettes in the informal prison economy, due to the fact that, “cost-cutting at detention facilities has many inmates complaining they’re not getting enough to eat.”

In the application of the death penalty. Link 6: The Supreme Court has considered it cruel and unusual to execute someone who is “intellectually disabled” for 14 years, but they let each state define “intellectual disability.” This year the Supreme Court is looking at whether the Texas definition of intellectually disabled (based on a fictional character in a Steinbeck novel) violates the 8th amendment.

And it affects men and women. Link 7: The Equal Justice Initiative delves into the “exploding U.S. female prison population.

Have you read anything worth sharing about criminal justice lately? Share in the comments.


A Stack of Seven Links

Lists are the best. As I was reading Emily’s 6 on the 6th list over at Curious Iguana’s blog, I was reminded how much I love reading lists of things other people are enjoying on the Internets. So I am going to share a few of mine.

1) As a woman with a master’s degree and the wife of a professor I have read lots of academic writing (most of it lately in the form of free copy editing services for my husband’s papers). I have always said that the lack of plain language wasn’t because these academicians are so much smarter than us, it’s because it’s harder to write clearly. And now The Atlantic is backing me up in this piece about unnecessarily complex academic writing.

2) I was driving listening to BBC earlier this summer and heard Tope Folarin read an essay about his obsession with creation stories. It was so compelling that I scrambled to record an audio note to myself with my smartphone (because that seems so much safer than typing, but it was still pretty dangerous tbh). Thankfully my app caught most of my note and I was able to decipher it plus do some googling and find the audio clip (now only available via the BBC free media player app). Not only was I introduced to Folarin’s writing, but I also learned about the Caine Prize. It was a win win.

3) Oh, hey, have you been participating in the Social Justice Book Club? We’re on our third book (it’s one book every other month) and maybe you’d like to join us? Kerry is the hostess of the club and has more info about the August bookThe New Jim Crow.

IMG_20160809_2141004) When I saw the illustrations on the covers of Flannery O’Connor’s books in Curious Iguana earlier this year I was mesmerized. I bought O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge because a) I had never read her and b) the cover was so darn beautiful. I decided to find out more about the illustrator, June Glasson, and came across this lovely interview she did (the best part is you get to see lots of examples of Glasson’s work).

5) I don’t know why it took me so long to read Flannery O’Connor, but one thing that pushed me over the edge was Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. She’s used O’Connor as an example several times. I’ve been slowly taking Prose’s book in and already find that my reading has more depth.

6) The Man Booker prize announced the 2016 longlist and while I recognize many of the authors, I haven’t actually read any of the books on the list. What about you? What do you think is going to make it to the shortlist?

7) I LOVED Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning Goldfinch. I’ve often wondered when (and if!) it would be made into film. If you didn’t already hear, the director of Brooklyn, John Crowley will be adapting Goldfinch into a movie. This is promising news to me, because I thought Brooklyn was such a sweet and well done movie.