the contextual life

thoughts without borders

On the Shelf: In Praise of the Novella

leave a comment »

As someone who commutes by public transportation and as the sole reviewer for a book blog that’s updated twice weekly, short novels, or novellas as they’re technically called, are appealing.

Novellas are defined as being anywhere between 17,500 words to 40,000 words. Some definitions begin as low as 10,000 words and go as high as 70,000 words (source: Wikipedia). Novellas are everywhere. Most likely you’ve read a few without realizing. Some of the more well-known titles are Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea.

Recently, the popular science fiction website SFsignal had a panel discussion about genre novellas on their ever-informative podcast; and columnist Dave Astor wrote In Praise of the Novella on The Huffington Post. Here are some key points from Dave’s short essay:

1. A novella can be read in only a few hours.
2. [A] novella is easy to carry on a bus or train, and easy to hold when riding an exercise bike without a reading rack.
3. [A] novella is an excellent way to try an author you’ve never read before to see if you like her or him.

All great reasons to go out and grab one. So, where to start?

In 2008 the Brooklyn-based independent publisher Melville House launched a line of beautifully designed novellas featuring both classic and contemporary titles. The project is still going strong and growing in new ways as technology evolves. There is even a reading challenge spurred on by Frances Evangelista of the Nonsuch Book blog where, even if you only pick up one book from the series, there’s a place for you.

What novellas have you read? What’s on your list?

Here are some novellas I’d like to get around to reading.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
I did some searching and couldn’t find anyone who considered this a novella. It might just be a middle-grade length book but it looks like a novella to me so I’m declaring it one today. Penguin Classics has reissued it as a Graphic deluxe with an amazing cover and introduction by the surrealistic novelist Aimee Bender of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake fame.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells is highly regarded in the science fiction community and many authors have looked to The Time Machine for inspiration. It only makes sense to go to the root. Here’s a description from IndieBound:

When a Victorian scientist propels himself into the year a.d. 802,701, he is initially delighted to find that suffering has been replaced by beauty, contentment, and peace. Entranced at first by the Eloi, an elfin species descended from man, he soon realizes that these beautiful people are simply remnants of a once-great culture–now weak and childishly afraid of the dark. They have every reason to be afraid: in deep tunnels beneath their paradise lurks another race descended from humanity–the sinister Morlocks. And when the scientist’s time machine vanishes, it becomes clear he must search these tunnels if he is ever to return to his own era.

The Hound and the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle is another author who has been admired and imitated. Sherlock Holmes has been made into movies both directly and indirectly. In The Hound and the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle resurrects Holmes for a “tale about the chilling re-animation of a curse haunting the Baskerville family since Medieval times, wherein a supernatural beast stalks the gloomy moors . . . Full of moody atmospherics, suspicious characters, and dramatic discoveries”.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
Travels with Charley is the account of Steinbeck’s 1960 journey across America with his poodle, Charley. In this book he is praised for “His keen ear for the transactions among people . . . as he records the interests and obsessions that preoccupy the Americans he encounters along the way.”

The opening paragraph of this book draws you in:

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of a stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.

City of Glass by Paul Auster
City of Glass is the first book in Auster’s New York Trilogy, a sort-of meta-noir where a mystery author gets caught up in a real life detective story starring himself in the lead role of private eye. This edition is the graphic novel adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchellil with an intro from Art Spiegelman.

What’s on your shelf this week?


Written by Gabrielle

September 15, 2011 at 5:41 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: