Novellas in November, Part 1: 3 Nonfiction, 2 Super-Short Fiction

Short books; short reviews.



The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell (1968)

[150 pages]

I learned about this from one of May Sarton’s journals, which shares its concern with ageing and selfhood. The author was an American suffragist, playwright, mother and analytical psychologist who trained under Jung and lived in England and Scotland with her Scottish husband. She kept this notebook while she was 82, partly while recovering from gallbladder surgery. It’s written in short, sometimes aphoristic paragraphs. While I appreciated her thoughts on suffering, developing “hardihood,” the simplicity that comes with giving up many cares and activities, and the impossibility of solving “one’s own incorrigibility,” I found this somewhat rambly and abstract, especially when she goes off on a dated tangent about the equality of the sexes. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)


Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (2004)

[143 pages]

“Activism is not a journey to the corner store, it is a plunge into the unknown. The future is always dark.” This resonated with the Extinction Rebellion handbook I reviewed earlier in the year. Solnit believes in the power of purposeful individuals working towards social justice, even in the face of dispiriting evidence (the largest protests the world had seen didn’t stop the Iraq War). Instead of perfectionism, she advises flexibility and resilience; things could be even worse had we not acted. At first I thought it depressing that 15 years on we’re still dealing with many of the issues she mentions here, and the environmental crisis has only deepened. But her strong and stirring writing is a reminder that, though injustice is always with us, so is everyday heroism. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)


Lama by Derek Tangye (1966)

[160 pages]

Tangye wrote a series of cozy animal books similar to Doreen Tovey’s. He and his wife Jean ran a flower farm in Cornwall and had a succession of cats, along with donkeys and a Muscovy duck named Boris. After the death of their beloved cat Monty, Jean wanted a kitten for Christmas but Tangye, who considered himself a one-cat man rather than a wholesale cat lover, hesitated. The matter was decided for them when a little black stray started coming round and soon made herself at home. (Her name is a tribute to the Dalai Lama’s safe flight from Tibet.) Mild adventures ensue, such as Lama going down a badger sett and Jeannie convincing herself that she’s identified another stray as Lama’s mother. Pleasant, if slight; I’ll read more by Tangye. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)



The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico (1951)

[47 pages]

Like Tangye, Gallico is known for writing charming animal books, but fables rather than memoirs. Set in postwar Assisi, Italy, this stars Pepino, a 10-year-old orphan boy who runs errands with his donkey Violetta to earn his food and board. When Violetta falls ill, he dreads losing not just his livelihood but also his only friend in the world. But the powers that be won’t let him bring her into the local church so that he can pray to St. Francis for her healing. Pepino takes to heart the maxim an American corporal gave him – “don’t take no for an answer” – and takes his suit all the way to the pope. This story of what faith can achieve just manages to avoid being twee. (From Kennet Centre free bookshop)


Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami (2002; English translation by Jay Rubin, 2003)

[42 pages]

Reprinted as a stand-alone pamphlet to celebrate the author’s 70th birthday, this is about a waitress who on her 20th birthday is given the unwonted task of taking dinner up to the restaurant owner, who lives above the establishment. He is taken with the young woman and offers to grant her one wish. We never hear exactly what that wish was. It’s now more than 10 years later and she’s recalling the occasion for a friend, who asks her if the wish came true and whether she regrets what she requested. She surveys her current life and says that it remains to be seen whether her wish will be fulfilled; I could only assume that she wished for happiness, which is shifting and subjective. Encountering this in a larger collection would be fine, but it wasn’t particularly worth reading on its own. (Public library)


I’ve also had a number of novella DNFs so far this month, alas: Atlantic Winds by William Prendiville (not engaging in the least), By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (fascinating autobiographical backstory; pretentious prose) and The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West (even more bizarre and crass than I’m used to from him).



Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?

15 responses

  1. What you said about the Murakami one demonstrates why I prefer reading these kind of things in a collection – not just better value for money, but also better value for time invested.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Particularly in this case as it was a short story rather than a novella, but I included it because I borrowed it as a stand-alone pamphlet.


  2. The Gallico and Tangye were part of my youth and remembered with affection. Murukami? No thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll read The Snow Goose this winter.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I felt exactly the same about Atlantic Winds!

    I’d like to read more Solnit. So far I’ve only tried Men Explain Things To Me, which I liked, but wasn’t especially memorable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw your review of Prendiville so my expectations weren’t high, but I wanted to at least give it a go as I’d won a copy in a Twitter giveaway … I only made it a few pages in.

      The only Solnit book I’d read in full was Wanderlust, her history of walking, which is dense but very good. She’s published so much in recent years that I’m a little daunted. I feel like she’s on the pulse but maybe too hasty in writing lots of short works.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, there’s so much to choose from!


  4. Some interesting reads there, nice to see reviews of books not all published this year, too. I do love Tangye but have only got one of my own and I’m not sure I can cope with the cats dying now! I forgot we could do short non-fiction (doh – in nonficnov!) so might have a little comb of the shelves for something.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Challenges like this one are great for getting through backlist reads. I add to an ongoing pile of novella-length reads, fiction and non-, all year in preparation for November. I think I’m one of the only bloggers who counts nonfiction novellas. Most others just do fiction, which is fine.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I quite liked the Murakami, and enjoyed the Gallico, but like you couldn’t read more than a few pages of the Smart!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You always manage to find books I’ve never heard of!
    Too bad about Atlantic Winds… But at least that makes one less book on my list. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I imagine you will still want to try it because of the Canadian setting. It didn’t grip me, but your experience might be different.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] in November is one of my favorite blogging challenges of the year. Earlier in the month I reviewed a first batch of five novellas. For this second and final installment I have 11 small books to feed back on: […]


  8. […] Philip Rhayader is a lonely bird artist on the Essex marshes by an abandoned lighthouse. “His body was warped, but his heart was filled with love for wild and hunted things. He was ugly to look upon, but he created great beauty.” One day a little girl, Fritha, brings him an injured snow goose and he puts a splint on its wing. The recovered bird becomes a friend to them both, coming back each year to spend time at Philip’s makeshift bird sanctuary. As Fritha grows into a young woman, she and Philip fall in love (slightly creepy), only for him to leave to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk. This is a melancholy and in some ways predictable little story. It was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940 and became a book the following year. I read a lovely version illustrated by Angela Barrett. It’s the second of Gallico’s animal fables I’ve read; I slightly preferred The Small Miracle. […]


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