I love a gem-like little book and the satisfaction of devouring a story all in one gulp. Here are seven favorites..
A new-to-me author: The English Understand Wool
If you spot this book in a store, you’ll feel the magnetic pull of its silver spine, drool-inducing Thiebaud cover, and declarative title. The story begins with Marguerite, our teenage heroine, explaining the finer things in life. She’s learned from the best, her exacting maman. At seven, Marguerite begins to play bridge – “one cannot always assume that a child can be kept out of sight” – and her mother’s friends soon request Marguerite as a partner, “especially if there were to be interesting stakes.” But then, at 17, Marguerite learns something her maman had failed to mention, and it’s way higher stakes than what hotel to visit in Paris.
The crowd pleaser: Mr. Salary (more copies here)
Faber Stories is a British series, but you can find their short-story collection online. For five bucks, each edition costs less than an iced latte (in New York). Mr. Salary was the first piece of fiction that Sally Rooney published — before Normal People and Conversations With Friends — so it’s fun to look back at an earlier work of hers and see her signature style developing. There’s an illicit will-they-won’t-they aspect to the narrator’s relationship with the titular Mr. Salary, an older family friend she moves in with at age 19 and later comes back to visit when her dad is dying. I started it in the bath and then had to finish it before getting dressed again.
Nonfiction gems: 300 Arguments and Tell Me How It Ends
I’ll read anything Sarah Manguso publishes, but 300 Arguments is a true delight. “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” she explains. Pack it for a park hang and then discuss your favorite aphorisms with friends. Here’s one: “Aspiring to fame is aspiring to a life of small talk.”
Next, in her extended essay Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli (whose 2019 novel you may have read) goes through the 40 questions that she asked migrant children while volunteering as a court interpreter in New York. Of five- and-seven-year-old sisters from Guatemala, Luiselli writes, “The day before they left, their grandmother sewed a ten-digit telephone number on the collars of the dress each girl would wear throughout the entire trip. It was a ten-digit number the girls had not been able to memorize, as hard as she tried to get them to, so she had decided to embroider it on their dresses, and repeat, over and over, a single instruction: they should never take this dress off, not even to sleep, and as soon as they reached America, as soon as they met the first American policeman, they were to show the inside of the dress’s collar to him. He would then dial the number and let them speak to their mother. The rest would follow.”
Luiselli encounters these girls after they’ve crossed the border, spent time in custody (“they didn’t remember how many days, but they said they were colder there than they had ever been”), lived for weeks in a shelter, and then flew to New York to reunite with their mom, stepdad, and baby brother. “But of course, it doesn’t end there,” she writes. “That’s just where it begins, with a court summons: a first Notice to Appear.” Though the volume is slim, she takes on the massive U.S. border crisis in a way that is clear and immediate. It’s a heart-wrenching look into the lives of children before and after they cross into the U.S.
Best in class: Kick the Latch and Aug 9 — Fog
Kathryn Scanlan writes some of my favorite little books. Kick the Latch tells the life story of professional “racetracker” Sonia, drawn from a series of interviews Scanlan did with a real horse trainer of the same name. It’s an immersive look into a brutal and sometimes beautiful way of life, told in a series of vignettes. “You live at the track, your life is full,” Sonia explains. Horse legs are “wheels,” jockeys sit in their cars blasting the heat while wrapped in cling wrap to try to “make weight” for a race, and a galloping horse spends “a lot of his time suspended in the air — flying, really — or on one foot.” That foot lands with “a thousand pounds of pressure held up by that one thin leg, that little hoof the size of a hand-held ashtray.” You don’t need to be a former horse girl to find it fascinating.
Aug 9 – Fog, also by Scanlan, has a slower, sleepier feel, but it’s no less compelling. The source material was the five-year diary of an 86-year-old woman living in a small town in the 1960s. Decades later, Scanlan found the diary at an estate sale. She took it home and typed out some of her favorite sentences, arranging and rearranging them over the course of several years. As Scanlan writes in the intro, after spending so much time with a stranger’s writing, the diarist’s voice has become part of her own. “Often I say to myself, ‘some hot nite’ or ‘flowers coming fast’ or ‘grass sure growing’ or ‘everything loose is traveling.’” This spare and beautiful portrait of a woman might inspire you to take another stab at diary life.
A French favorite: Happening
I’m in an Annie Ernaux reading group that formed after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2022. We gather every six weeks or so for wine, cheese, and Annie talk. We’ve read six of her books so far, and this is the one I suggest whenever friends ask for an Ernaux rec. With her signature remove, she explores the shame of an unwanted pregnancy, her near-death experience, and her strongest memories of the period. If you like it, you’re in luck, because several more of her books have been translated into English — Seven Stories sells a whole set.
Now it’s your turn: what small books or short stories do you love? I’m always looking to add books to my overstuffed bookshelf.
Alex Ronan is a writer and investigative reporter from New York. Her work has been published by Elle, New York Magazine, Vogue, and The New York Times. She has written for Cup of Jo about navigating grief, camping solo, and a host of other things. Follow her on Instagram, if you’d like.
P.S. Joanna’s three favorite books, a short story that made us gasp, and the cutest book you’ll ever read.
(Photo by Lucas Ottone/Stocksy.)