New Literary Gems Under 200 Pages

thumbnail_IMG_4482    A quick read is usually a mystery thriller I cannot put down, but I recently found a few books not in that genre but just as intense, and under two hundred pages.  I wished they had gone on for more.  They are so small and compact, I thought of saving them for my next long flight, but like chocolate, I couldn’t resist.

Have you read anything short and sweet lately?

My Twenty-Five Years in Provence by Peter Mayle

imagesAt only 179 pages, Mayle’s book was long enough to remind me of one of favorite vacations in Provence a few years ago.  I still have some thyme weighed out for me at the farmer’s market, but I am running out – time to go back for more. Mayle’s travel musings have his usual rambling flair in this posthumous “reflections of then and now.”  A joy to read and reread, this 25-year retrospective includes the amazing croissants and wines in cozy cafes (you can almost taste them), and the wonder of the beautiful landscape in the Luberon region.  He includes some bumps along the way to tranquility, but I agree with Mayle’s philosophy; ““Memory is at its best when it’s selective, when we have edited out the dull, the disappointing and the disagreeable until we are left with rose-colored perfection.”

Harbor Me by Jacquelyn Woodson

Honored with many awards, including the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson’s new book for middle school age children – Harbor Me – has a message for adults in its 176 pages.

When the teacher assigns four boys and two girls to meet every Friday in the old art room they rename the ARTT (A Room To Talk room), with no adults to listen in, they share their problems and discover together they have the strength to face them. The issues are timely: Esteban’s father’s deportation after being taken from work at a local factory to Haley’s father’s incarceration and her struggle with her own bi-racial identity, and Amari’s fears of racial profiling. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they hide from the rest of the world and find a safe harbor.

His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Kate Walbert’s 149 pages in His Favorites build into the #MeToo story of a vulnerable fifteen year old girl at a prestigious private boarding school.  The story starts with the death of a teenage girl from a drunken joyride in a golf cart.  As the driver,  Jo’s guilt drives her to acquiesce to her thirty-four year old Advanced Lit class teacher’s sexual advances, until she finally decides to go to the headmaster for help. The administrator’s reaction is predictable. Walbert clearly points to all the adults who have abandoned Jo, including her parents, as she navigates a painful journey that never ends:

“From here there is never … a day without Master’s shadow across my life — a solid bar, a locked turnstile that brings me up short, trapped on the other side of where I thought I was going, the place I once imagined I would be.”

A story with a short but powerful and painful  statement…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

UnknownDorthe Nors 192 pages had me remembering when I learned to drive; I was sixteen and taught by my patient father, but Nors’ heroine, Sonja,  is over forty trying to learn how to drive a stick shift in a driving school with an impatient young instructor.  Written as a stream of consciousness dialogue with herself, the story allows the reader into Sonja’s anxiety-driven “monkey mind” as she jumps into tangent topics, often daydreaming while she is having a driving lesson.

Nors’ book is translated from Danish with obscure references to the landscape; coincidentally, Sonja is a translator of gory Swedish crime novels. It took awhile to get into the rhythm of the story, maybe because of the translation, but when Sonya drops out in the middle of a hike with a group of women to find a bakery with “thick slices of cake,” I suddenly liked her.

The book may be short but it is packed with dark humor and introspective notes, and double entendre on living life alone, as Sonja watches out for her blind spots:

“I’m a woman past forty.  Alone… Barefoot and besides, I can’t shift gears.”

lightning-bolt-clipart-lightning-bolt-hiMore Short Books to Look For:

  • Coming later in September – Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini 

In 48 pages in a letter from father to son. the author of The Kite Runner commemorates the second anniversary of the death of the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy who drowned while attempting to reach Greece.

  • In January, 2019 – Ghost Wall by Kate Moss – 144 pages

“…A gothic tale of bullying and bog people…”

And the Mountains Echoed

9781594631764_p0_v5_s260x420Khaled Hosseini’s sad tale of an Afghan family – And the Mountains Echoed –  opens with a bedtime story telling of the sacrifice of a child to a mythical creature to save the village  –  a not so subtle representation of the narrative that follows about a poor Afghan village boy, Abdullah, and his three-year-old sister, Pari.    Pari is sacrificed as a young child to a wealthy childless family; in exchange for her “adoption,” Abdullah’s family receives money to survive.  Their disparate lives form the plot, through flashbacks that slowly reveal their destinies.

Hosseini builds the story through a series of connected short stories across fifty years, told by different characters, all touching the lives of the brother or the sister.  Sacrifice and selfishness are simultaneous themes, from the uncle who has arranged the sale of his young niece to the doctor who eventually lives in the house where she grew up.  The setting moves from Afghanistan to Paris to California, clearly identifying how the difference in surroundings affected possibilities.   Hosseini documents the history of his native Afghanistan as it evolves through wars and westernization, and reveals the traumas of those who remain and what happens to those who leave and then come back to rediscover their country.

Characters are complicated; Hosseini deftly creates the stereotype, then shatters it with an unexpected twist: the glamorous greedy Nila revealed as a devoted mother with a tragic past; the dedicated Americanized doctor who defaults on his promise; Parwana, the loving younger sister with a betrayal that haunts her through a lifetime of misery.  The story moves tangentially across generations, switching narrators effortlessly.  Characters I had dismissed as minor reappeared with unexpected depth.

With his first line of the book –

“So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one.”

Hosseini makes good on his promise to tell a good story and left me with the feeling that I would need to read it again to understand and appreciate the nuances.  Like his first novel, The Kite Runners, this book offers a personal view of lives – who, depending on the grace of birth and circumstances, could struggle, succeed, or merely fade away – but always leaving an indelible mark.