Summer Shorts: 10 Novellas Perfect for Literary Lounging


Sometimes when the weather is warm and the sun is shining, the last thing we want is to weigh ourselves down with a huge heavy novel, but instead yearn for a slim, compact novella that still packs a punch. After all, in the summer months, we like to be ready to head to the beach at any moment, and there’s nothing better than slipping a 150-pager into a back pocket and devouring it on a towel. Lucky for us, Shelf Unbound , a free digital magazine featuring the best of small press and independent books, has put together a wonderful list of indie novellas — their descriptions as gleefully brief as they are — and allowed us to reprint it here. Click through to get a few great ideas for slim summer reads courtesy of Margaret Brown and Marc Schuster at Shelf Unbound, and then be sure to check out the rest of the most recent issue here — and while you’re at it, you may just want to sign up for a free subscription. Enjoy!

Breakfast at the Hotel Déjà Vu , Paul Torday

Length: 100 pages

Summary: Former MP Bobby Clarke, career ruined by a financial scandal, retires to a Mediterranean hotel to recuperate from a serious illness and write his memoirs.

Author: Paul Torday is the author of the bestseller Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, recently adapted as a movie starring Ewan McGregor.

First lines: “The view from the window of his hotel room was just as he had hoped it would be. Twenty feet below Bobby’s window was the decking of a sun terrace. Faded white umbrellas sheltered sets of wooden chairs and round tables. He opened the window and leaned out to obtain a better view.”

Our Twitter-length review: Paul Torday unfolds a full-blown story, complete with philosophical meanderings, in a novella that has turned us into fans of his style.

Train Dreams , Denis Johnson

Length: 128 pages

Summary: Spanning the life of Idaho laborer Robert Grainier from 1886 to 1968, Train Dreams is an elegiac story of the isola- tion and tragic hardness of the early American West.

Author: Denis Johnson is a poet and novelist whose novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award.

First lines: “In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.”

“Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.”

Our Twitter-length review: We’ve admired Denis Johnson’s haunting, ruminative prose since 1991’s Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. Train Dreams is a moving gem.

The Sensualist , Daniel Torday

Length: 110 pages

Summary: Samuel Gerson quits his high school baseball team and becomes embroiled with Dmitri Zilber, a Russian Jewish immigrant, and the echoes of war trauma experienced by their families are played out in their friendship and coming of age.

Author: Daniel Torday’s work has appeared in Esquire and Glimmer Train, among other publications. He is director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.

First lines: “The events leading to the beating Dmitri Abramovitch Zilber and his friends would administer to Jeremy Goldstein at the end of my junior year of high school — an act that would make them the talk of every household in Pikesville for months after — started before Dmitri and I even met. I was sixteen then, and reluctantly finishing my final two years at a high school in Baltimore. At that time I was plagued by an old excoriating Greek gym teacher named Mr. Stephanopoulos.”

Our Twitter-length review: Torday crafts a spot-on coming-of-age novel while also also exploring painful legacies passed from one generation to the next.

The Redemption of George Baxter Henry , Conor Bowman

Length: 144 pages

Summary: George Baxter Henry wants more than anything to keep his family together, so he books a trip to the South of France where his son can dry out, his daughter can get to know him, and his wife can fall in love again — that is, if Henry can manage to keep it all together, no mean feat given his proclivity for extramarital affairs.

Author: Conor Bowman is an Irish lawyer who spends part of his time living in France. Kirkus described him as a “robust storyteller.”

First lines: “The whole fucking thing starts at twenty five thousand feet over the Azores, or some place, with my seventeen-year-old son’s head down the toilet. Don’t believe me? You better batten down the latches (or whatever the fuck the phrase is) and listen up because every word is absolutely true. This story begins in a john on a 747.”

Our Twitter-length review: Bowman’s greatest talent is his penchant for making us care about characters who are, for the most part, unlikable. As a literary everyman, Henry’s redemption is our own.

Varamo , César Aira

Length: 144 pages

Summary: In 1923 Panama, a civil servant, Varamo, is paid in counterfeit bills, panics, and distracts himself by focusing on an embalming project. Oh, and he also spends the night writing an epic poem soon hailed as a national masterpiece.

Author: César Aira (b. 1949) was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. He has published more than seventy books of fiction and essays.

First lines: “One day in 1923, in the city of Colon (Panama), a third-class clerk, having finished work, and, since it was payday, passed by the cashier’s desk to collect his monthly salary, left the Ministry in which he was employed. In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections.”

Our Twitter-length review: Take the most modern piece of writing you can think of, add a “post” in front of it, and you’ve got an apt description of Varamo. Playfully cerebral.

The Mere Weight of Words , Carissa Halston

Length: 108 pages

Summary: A young linguist confronts identity and relationship issues, estrangement from her father, and a sudden facial palsy, relying on words as both sword and armor.

Author: Carissa Halston is a two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize.

First lines: “I learn of my father’s condition online. While reading the Arts and Leisure section of the Times, I see a thumbnail-sized photo of him appear in the side bar: Notable Filmmaker Suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. I stop breathing on the exhale.”

Our Twitter-length review: With smart, inventive wordplay, Halston explores the veracity of language, and, ultimately, of love. More, please, Carissa Halston.

How to Get Into the Twin Palms , Karolina Waclawiak

Length: 192 pages

Summary: Rejecting both her acquired American-ness and the culture of her native Poland, Zosia takes on a new name, Anya, and attempts a new identity to fit into her Russian neighborhood in LA.

Author: Karolina Waclawiak received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. She is Deputy Editor of The Believer.

First lines: “It was a strange choice to decide to pass as a Russian. But it was a question of proximity and level of allure. Russians were everywhere in Los Angeles, especially in my neighborhood, and held a certain sense of mystery. I had long attempted to inhabit my Polish skin and was happy to finally crawl out of it.”

Our Twitter-length review: The premise is comical, but the story is deep, as Anya bumps up against the world in an attempt to define her identity as both an immigrant and a woman.

The Duel , Heinrich von Kleist

Length: 51 pages

Summary: A duke is murdered, his brother the Count is charged, a noblewoman’s reputation is besmirched, and a knight proposes a duel to defend her honor. The novella was originally published in German in 1810 and was considered one of the great works of German literature.

Author: Heinrich Von Kleist (1777–1811) is best known for his revolutionary plays and stories embracing realism and rejecting the ideals of eminent German humanists such as Goethe.

First line: “Toward the end of the fourteenth century, as night was falling on the feastday of St. Remigius, Duke Wilhelm von Breysach — who had been living in enmity with his half-brother, count Jakob Rotbart, ever since the Duke’s clandestine marriage to a countess reputedly below his social rank, Katharina von Heersbruck of the family Alt-Huningen — returned home from a meeting with the German Kaiser in Worms, at which the Duke had persuaded the Kaiser to legitimize as his one natural son, Count Philip von Huningen, who had been conceived before marriage, the Duke’s other children born in wedlock having died.”

Our Twitter-length review: A rousing, cinematic read — and a fine sample of Melville House’s new HybridBook series, which offers electronic bonus material (such as illustrated dueling instructions).

Fear of Music , Jonathan Lethem

Length: 140 pages

Summary: Not a novella, but an intense homage/history/memoir of the writer’s adolescent obsession with The Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music.

Author: Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and essayist whose works have appeared in Rolling Stone. He is the Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College.

First lines: “In the summer of 1979, in New York City, a fifteen-year-old boy sitting in his bedroom heard a voice speaking to him over his radio. The voice said: ‘Talking Heads have a new album. It’s called Fear of Music.’ The voice was that of David Byrne, the lead singer of the band Talking Heads. The voice had restricted itself deliberately to a halting and monotonous presentation, but the words, spoken softly, their speaker miked close, admitted a degree of tenderness — that high, reedy vulnerability this singer generally finds it hard to mask, even as he delights in masks, in vocal mummery.”

Our Twitter-length review: The latest in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, Fear of Music is another intriguing and entertaining merger of album and literature.

The Mimic’s Own Voice , Tom Williams

Length: 97 pages

Summary: The mimic in question, at least as far as the narrative is concerned, is Douglas Myles, a man of a thousand voices who ascends almost accidentally to international acclaim when his preternatural ability to imitate the voice of anyone he meets first lands him a series of gigs at local comedy hot spots and then, in classic showbiz style, leads him to a career-making appearance on national television and a slew of subsequent live shows and tours in increasingly larger venues.

Author: Tom Williams’ fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in over thirty publications. A former James Michener Fellow, he has received individual artist fellowships from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Arkansas Arts Council. He is an associate editor of American Book Review and Chair of Humanities at the University of Houston-Victoria.

First lines: “In the halcyon days of professional mimics, shortly after they’d outpaced their predecessors, the vernacular storytellers, who had, a decade earlier, wrested the comedic throne from the one-liner royalty, it would have been difficult to name a town of ten thousand souls that didn’t possess some venue where performed those artists who made their fame and fortune with stunning mimicry of the period’s political leaders and actors, athletes and musicians, scholars, and men of science.”

Our Twitter-length review: Tom Williams offers a charming and intelligent meditation on, among other things, identity, the anxiety of influence, and the vagaries of fortune and fame in our postmodern world.