The Overflowing Beach Bag — Part 2: Get Shorty!

As promised, senior editor Lexy Bloom’s short, quick, steamy summer reads to whip through in one afternoon— just in time for this final week of summer.

Publishers and editors often like to groan that novellas are tricky to publish – falling somewhere in between a short story and a novel, no one seems to know what to do with them. All publishing wisdom (or lack thereof) aside, the novella is – in my opinion – an often overlooked art form.

Boccacio’s Decameron is composed of them. Faulker wrote one; so did Nathanael West, Edith Wharton, Philip Roth, and Jane Smiley, to name just a very few. A novella isn’t quite a short story gone on for too long – think of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café or James Joyce’s The Dead, two gorgeous and perfect examples of the form. But the arc of a novella has to be leaner than that of a novel – there’s no room for fat or excess, just everything perfectly in its place.

Some argue that The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are novellas – I beg to differ, as those books seem too complex and layered to make the cut. Richard Ford, in his introduction to the excellent 1997 collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story, writes at length on the literary history of novellas and novelletes, or what he chooses, in the end, to call “long stories.” Ford writes:

“What I liked about novellas had, of course, always been occasioned by reading them. They were satisfyingly long but not too long; they were full; they seemed artful about staying out of definition’s focus and were likely to be surprising about something important. But my appreciation took on greater complexity the moment I set out to write one of my own.”

Ford writes that in practice – in his non-scientific study – a novella usually contains between 15,000 and 50,000 words. To translate that into trade paperback terms, that means around 150 pages or less.

Here’s a short list of my favorite short books. Take them to the beach; read them on the subway/bus/train/plane en route to your Labor Day weekend destination; or just devour one during a nice afternoon on the couch.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan: Sex! Love! Heartbreak! A steamy summer love story set in the south of France, this book was controversial upon its original publication in 1954 for its young narrator and its explicit nature. Read today it’s not quite so extreme, but remains fantastically enjoyable. Pick up the beautiful new edition that Harper Perennial published in 2008.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: Alan Bennett, author of The History Boys, among many others, wrote this hilarious novel about the Queen of England. Here she takes up reading as a pastime – to the chagrin of her family and staff, who fear it is taking her away from her royal duties. A laugh-out-loud book for real book-lovers.

Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice: When I first read this novella in Granta almost ten years ago, I was blown away. This first book by Australian writer Ben Rice is set in the outback amongst opal mines. The setting is stunning and the characters even better – Pobby and Dingan, the imaginary friends of one Kellyanne Williamson.

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky: Discovered posthumously, Fire in the Blood was pieced together by Nemirovsky’s biographers, who found its pages amongst her papers and notebooks. A gorgeous story of manners, adultery, family secrets and the French countryside, this short beautiful book has all the pointed detail and attention to class and society that readers loved in her international bestseller Suite Française.

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott: An early selection in the amazing NYRB classics series – with an introduction by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours – this book takes place over the course of one afternoon. “It begins, this great American novel, with the voice of recollection; that is the voice of uncertainty,” wrote Susan Sontag, in the New Yorker. “It belongs, in my view, among the treasures of twentieth-century American literature, however untypical are its sleek, subtle vocabulary, the density of its attention to character, its fastidious pessimism, and the clipped worldliness of its point of view.”

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore: Maybe it’s a stretch to call this incredibly meaty short work a novella. (I think I’m breaking my own rules.) Moore’s work takes up the friendship between two teenage girls in upstate New York. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece and since it clocks in at 147 pages. . . I recommend it with pleasure! (Then read Moore’s long-awaited new novel, out in September, called A Gate at the Stairs.)

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: After the success of Atonement and Saturday, two rich, multi-layered novels, McEwan came back with this short, perfect book about the fraught wedding night of a British couple in the late 1950s. Seamlessly moving back and forth between their two perspectives, this novella is a stunning example of the form.

*Lexy Bloom is a senior editor at Vintage/Anchor and a paperback junkie. At age ten, she packed a trunk filled entirely with books and brought it to summer camp. Family and friends have never let her forget this.*

The Best Book(s) You’re Not Reading

One of my favorite questions to ask friends, family, fellow editors, or, really, any random reader is “What’s the best book I’m not reading?”  Working with books all the time, it’s sometimes easy to forget what else is out there.  I’m always up for recommendations!

I thought I’d take a moment to pretend that someone asked 1977me that 1974question.  The best book you’re not reading is actually a series of books: The Red Riding Quartet by David Peace.  These books—Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty, and Nineteen Eighty-Three (coming soon!)—showcase crime writing at its finest.  They tell the true-crime story of a serial killer tormenting Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s.  And let me tell you, they’re not for the faint of heart.  I read these books in big, white-knuckled gulps—they’re dark, grisly, violent, and shocking.  But what makes them so enjoyable is Peace’s signature writing style.  He’s a very methodical writer and you don’t even notice as he pulls you fully into his characters’ psyches.  It’s not always a pretty place, but damn is it fun.


And guess what?  There are movies coming! The BBC and IFC teamed up to make three films based on the four books.  Red Riding: 1974, directed by Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited); Red Riding: 1980, , directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire); and Red Riding: 1983, directed by Anand Tucker (Shopgirl).  They come out this fall. 


Peace, sadly, isn’t so well-known here.  (We also published the first book in his Tokyo trilogy, Tokyo Year Zero which is just as good as the Quartet but takes place in post-WWII Tokyo).  But he’s beloved in his native UK.   Ian Rankin has called him “the future of crime fiction” and The Times calls him “a writer of immense talent and power.”  I think it’s only a matter of time before this amazing writer takes off over here.  Certain Yanks are already taking note.  George Pelecanos has said he’s “transforming the genre with passion and style.”  So what are you waiting for?  Get reading!


*ZACHARY WAGMAN has been an editor at Vintage Books since 2006. Before that, he was an assistant at Knopf. Before that, he went to NYU and before that he grew up in New Jersey.*

The Sunwise Turn

A recent post about the near-mint Ulysses turned up some interesting information about the bookstore where it was originally purchased. Founded with the unabashed intellectualism we associate with the interwar years, The Sunwise Turn was high minded, eclectic, and expensive.

Opened in 1916 by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray Clarke, the store was originally planned to service a special class of reader. The same way an art dealer contents himself with a massive sales to a handful of buyers, Jenison and Mowbray Clarke (what names!) would be kept in business not by foot traffic, but by a dedicated “fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year.” That Aegean blue Ulysses would have been exactly the specialty book a well heeled New York reader would splash cash on, especially since, when published, it was as illegal as gin.

Sunwise TurnOf course, then as now it was tricky to find anybody who spends $500 on reading. To stay in the black, and to avoid the laziness that comes with private endowment, they also sold textiles, artwork and stationary. The store itself was lavish, its woodwork colored a “burning orange,” and when the shop moved uptown to a location just opposite Grand Central, it was a beacon of elite taste in the city’s most public location. (The seal at left is from their original location on 31st Street.)

They published authors as well known as Ranier Maria Rilke, hosted readings for Robert Frost, and sold books to Peggy Guggenheim and a young Alfred A. Knopf. The Sunwise Turn was probably too fancy to have lasted the Depression, if they hadn’t been bought by Doubleday in 1927. This week’s London auction is a reminder, though, that their books are still selling, even if they remain a bit overpriced.

Institutions of Modernism, Lawrence S. Rainey. 1998
Images from Dorothy Sloan and Confessions of a Bookplate Addict.

Too Expensive To Read

Our excellent Twitter scared up an article on the Guardian about a hyper rare (there are four of them) first edition of Ulysses that was just sold for £275,000—approximately $450,000—in a British auction. (The book can be yours, unsigned and slightly battered, for a comparitively cheap $60,000, or in paperback for the rock bottom price of $12.22.) The book, one of 100 printed by Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and signed by Joyce himself, has spent the last 80 some-odd years left in the box it was purchased in. This means it has maintained its sea-blue color while still, presumably, looking impressive on the owner’s shelf.

The Guardian article points out that the book is unopened save for a quick peek at the salacious (for the time) last chapter, meaning that since it was first published people have been buying Ulysses, thinking about reading it, giving up, and then deciding to just glance at the sexy bits.

The Covers of Howards End

howards end-old


E.M. Forster’s Howards End, written in 1910, was first issued by Vintage Books in 1954, with a cover by E. McKnight Kauffer. The house is Forster’s central character, but it is never described in the book, and trying to convey it visually would be like attempting to illustrate the face of Lolita or Holly Gollightly. [Incidentally, Forster based the house on his childhood home in Hertfordshire. —Ed.] Instead, McKnight Kauffer chose to convey the novel’s triangular relationships in the form of trees. You could say that the two white trees are the Schlegel sisters and the black tree is a member of the Wilcox family, or Mr Bast. The two white trees lean into each other and away from the upstart black tree, but they are all connected by foliage.

howards end


In re-packaging this book for a Vintage Classics reissue that will come out later this year, a homage to the original cover seemed too tempting to pass up. Textiles were the theme for the four novels being re-issued (also A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread and The Longest Journey). So a pattern of trees by the Spitalfields silk designer, Anna Maria Garthwaite, was chosen from the Victoria & Albert Museum. It shows two apple trees and a pear tree. In the spirit of E. M. Forster therefore, we were able to “only connect…”

Megan Wilson