It goes without saying that December is the busiest time of year for most people. The joyous, nerve-wrenching holiday rush, with shopping, baking, parties, and family gatherings takes a toll on one’s reading time. I’m here to help! The books I’m recommending this month are crisp little nuggets - novellas that clock in at under 200 pages each. They are books that can be polished off in a couple of sittings between holiday activities or read from start to finish on a rare quiet afternoon.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is the perfect holiday read. Subtle and thoughtful and filled with compassion, it is the story of how a remarkable act can change the life of a seemingly unremarkable person.
It is 1985, and Bill Furlong is making his living selling coal and other heating fuels to neighbors in a small Irish town. His mother was sixteen when she gave birth to him, and died when he was twelve; his father was unknown. He was raised by the kind, immanently practical Mrs. Wilson, who saw him though bullying and grief. Keeping his head down, and developing a knack for business, he grows into a quiet, serious man. He marries the sharp-witted Eileen and they go on to raise five bright, intelligent daughters.
One day, shortly before Christmas, he is delivering an order to the local convent. Haggard-looking teen-aged girls are scrubbing the floor when he arrives. One of them approaches him and begs him to take her away with him. When a nun interrupts their conversation, it rouses Furlong’s suspicions that things are not what they seem at the convent. He senses that his life is about to change dramatically as he drives off in a heavy fog. This feeling is heightened when, stopping to ask directions, a strange man tells him, “This road will take you wherever you want to go, son.”
To reveal more would be to spoil the reading experience of this small gem of a book. Keegan’s writing is quiet yet forceful as she gently pulls the reader into Furlong’s soul and conscience. Her descriptions of Christmas in Ireland have the snow-flecked softness of Joyce’s The Dead. “Always, Christmas brought out the best and worst in people,” Furlong observes late in the book.
The scandal that was the Magdalene laundries, Irish Catholic institutions which took in unwed mothers and other “wayward women” and subjected them to forced labor and often torture, did not end until 1996. It wasn’t until 2013 that a formal state apology was issued and a fund established to compensate the survivors. While there have been books and films that have exposed the horrors of the laundries, none have the hushed urgency of Small Things Like These.
Looking for more short reads for the busy holiday season? These slim gems pack a lot of substance into fewer than 200 pages -
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s masterpiece about gay expats in 1950’s Paris is full of passion, violence, and the complexities of human relationships.
We Had to Remove this Post by Hanna Bervoets
Trigger warnings are in order for this taut, pitch black tale of the dark side of social media and what it does to the souls of those whose job it is to engage with it daily. Mac’s Backs Book Club will discuss this book on December 20. Click here for details - https://www.macsbacks.com/event/macs-backs-book-club-discusses-we-had-re...
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
This fictionalized biography of Margaret Cavendish, who shocked 17th century Britain with her daring writing and outlandish behavior, is a miracle of economical, evocative writing.
Happening by Annie Ernaux
Ernaux’s memoir of her abortion in the early ’60’s is a compassionate, harrowing clarion cry for choice.
Saint Sebastian’s Abyss by Mark Haber
Two art critics, former best friends, spend their careers preoccupied with a single painting in this witty, quirky tale of competition, obsession, and friendship.
The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac
The complexities of interracial love in post-WWII bohemian San Francisco are laid bare in Kerouac’s characteristic restless prose.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Murata’s appealingly odd protagonist stays true to herself despite the urgings of those around her to aspire to “more” in this sweet, strange little book.
The Swimmers by Jule Otsuka
The Swimmers is a poetic ode to community and an exhortation to show up for those who are important to us. See my September 2023 post for a complete review.
The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson
A woman wakes up in a Vancouver hotel room in the 1990’s discovering that she has written the entire works of Baudelaire. This rambling, lyrical feminist work stretches the boundaries of conventional fiction. See last month’s blog post for a full review.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders
Master of the short story Saunders casts his skewed, satirical eye on the sheer craziness of life in America in this arresting collection.
Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq
A hallucinatory semi-autobiographical story of the life of a young woman in Nunavut. Mythical, violent, haunting, and unforgettable.
Coming in January -
Burn Man by Mark Anthony Jarman
These 21 short stories are a compendium of the complexities of the male experience - men behaving badly, men trying to do the right thing despite the odds stacked against them, men grieving, working, fighting, being jerks, being saints. In the title story, a man wakes up to find himself on fire. In another, a soldier relates his alternative account of the death of Custer. A recovering junkie unwittingly endangers his young son. Jarman’s sentences are marvels of architectural structure, built from the grit that builds up in each of these troubled souls. Deftly-placed song lyrics and literary quotes pepper the prose, making you want to read each sentence again and again, savoring the words on your tongue. A swaggering, abrasively poetic collection.
…and finally, a few winter haiku to warm a snowy day -
The sky clears
And the moon and the snow
Are one colour.
But for their cries,
The herons would be lost
Amidst the morning snow.
The black crow that I always despised,
and yet, against the snowy dawn…
For further reading -