7th August 2020

Culture / Featured / Dr. Freddie Baveystock

The Book Doctor Prescribes: 10 Short Books

20 11 mins 1

OOur very own Book Doctor, Dr. Freddie Baveystock, writes regularly on the books he finds most worth reading.

For some, our long lockdown was reading heaven. For others – many others, if my peer group is anything to go by – it was reading hell. Short attention span, constant minor distractions, an unavoidably symbiotic relationship with one’s phone, a background hum of barely articulated anxiety and dread, whatever the reason, if you have been finding it hard to read, you are very, very far from alone.

Faced with symptoms like these, traditional cures for loss of reading libido are unlikely to work. So I can’t prescribe any George Eliot, Don Delillo or EL Doctorow, three of my most effective aphrodisiacs for those who need luring back between the printed sheets.

I am offering you a sparkling smorgasbord of short reads instead. For short books make so few demands on us that they liberate us to read more freely. These are books that you can readily read in a single sitting, given a sunny day in the garden or a lazy afternoon on the sofa. Books that don’t require you to remember how X is related to Y, or what happened to Z two hundred pages ago. Books that can be savoured seriously slowly if you prefer, rolled around inside your mind like a 12-year-old single pot distilled whisky. Books that can easily be read twice in a row if the mood takes you. Books that can be readily abandoned without guilt if they don’t appeal.

In short, books to make you feel good about reading again.

Ivan Turgenev, First Love

Turgenev was universally admired during his day as an innovative writer of stylish prose; and although that remains true, these days his novels seem over-long and, to be frank, pretty boring. This gorgeous, wistful novella, on the other hand, is Turgenev at his sparkling best. It relates a story of adolescent passion, that rite of passage that every young person goes through: falling hopelessly in love with the wrong person. Turgenev’s delicate wit manages to question such innocence while also celebrating the glorious freedom of youth. If you wish to remind yourself of those heady days, this short tale is a lovely way of doing so.

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

Offill is a slow burn writer. The first time you read her, you will be struck by her incredible concision, her offbeat humour, and heartbreaking silences. The second time – and there will be a second time, everyone I know who reads her, re-reads her – you will notice the extraordinary artistry. In my book, this tale of marriage, parenthood, heartbreak and recovery is up there with all-time heartbreak classics like ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘The Good Soldier’, only is much more daring in narrative terms. I’ve read it four times now. Jenny Offill is a quiet wonder, a treasure, a keeper.

Richard Ford, Between Them

Ford was an only child born to older, complicated parents whose distinctive relationship clearly marked him for life as something of a loner. But this is no misery memoir: written in two parts, the first an essay on his father (who died in Ford’s arms when he was sixteen), the second on his mother, both of them clearly beloved in different ways. Indeed, ‘Between Them’ unfolds as a graceful, elegiac testimony to postwar American life – all those hopes and dreams, dignities and indignities, love and cruelties – that is now so long gone. Ultimately it is the precision with which Ford investigates his own emotions in relation to the past that provides the greatest drama here; this is a quiet masterpiece of memoir writing that repays being read over and over again.

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life

Set in the Austrian Alps, and possessing an almost timeless quality derived from this setting, ‘A Whole Life’ recounts the life story of Andreas, a man as simple and dignified as Seethaler’s writing style. Given away at birth, raised by a humble farmer, his life in the mountains unfurls in tandem with nature and the changing face of the region. Reading this is itself like a long slow walk in the mountains; meditative, calming and, at times, almost too beautiful and moving for words. A short book that packs a whole lot of life into it.

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams

If you’ve never read Johnson – one of the most versatile and poetic fiction writers to emerge from twentieth-century America – this is a great place to start. Like Seethaler’s book, only even shorter, it manages to convey the texture of the honest working life in prose of haunting simplicity and spareness. And what work: the hard labour of laying train track and trying to stay afloat on the most meagre of means. The facts are bleak, but the writing uplifts. If there is poetry to be found in every life, Johnson knows where to find it.

Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun

Remember when Murakami was the most magnetising writer? Maybe not, since he has written some proper duds over the last decade or so. But this little gem is nearly thirty years old now, and dates back to his glory days. It’s the book of his I return to whenever I want to indulge in a little of that Murakami mystery, that sense of ordinary men and women pushing through the envelope of their humdrum lives to touch the light that hovers just out of reach. Unrequited love, chance meetings, Japanese jazz bars… it’s seductive stuff, and will reaffirm your faith in fiction’s ability to make us see the world differently.

Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

Here’s another writer whose former greatness is worth revisiting. He started out as a poet, and this extraordinary short book is where he bridged into fiction while retaining his ability to say so much with only a very few words. It tells the story of Buddy Bolden, the New Orleans trumpeter who has been credited with inventing jazz before he went mad. Infused with its own sublime jazz sensibility – it’s fractured, twisting and turning in the most surprising ways – this book is a testament to the power of inspired music-making, be that with the trumpet or the pen.

Olivia Laing, Crudo

Many contemporary writers are exploring short form writing for its ability to capture the oddly narrow, self-involved, and inconsequential perspectives that characterise modern life. Laing takes huge risks with this extremely short piece of autofiction, adopting the voice of someone permanently plugged into social media, distracted by the chaotic unfurling of world events in tandem with personal notifications, twitter gossip and intrigue. By turns hilarious, shocking and thought-provoking, this is an addictive read that is over before you want it to be.

Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

You surely know Jansson for her Moomin stories, but Sort of Books have been doing a wonderful job over the years of republishing her less well-known works of adult fiction, and this is the finest of them all. It’s a short, lyrical, clearly autobiographical tribute to the summers spent by a young girl on her family’s tiny, remote island in the Gulf of Finland. In short chapters, it dramatises the relationship between 6-year-old Sophia and her eccentric artist grandmother. That’s all you need to know: not much happens, apart from the intertwining of life, love and laughter, which is precisely what we need our summers to remind us about.

John Cheever, Oh What A Paradise It Seems

Cheever is one of the great short story writers not just of the twentieth century, but of all time. As a mordant chronicler of American lives, he was highly attuned to the inner workings of the hungry heart, how we can be steeped in luxury but not truly at home in our skins. He tried his hand as a novelist, but somehow these longer works never really take flight. But just before he died, he wrote this sublime hundred-page novella. It’s a riot from start to finish, and suffused with the lyricism of someone who just loves life, no matter what odd shape or form it takes. If nothing else on this list strikes your fancy, don’t overlook this beauty. As John Leonard wrote in the New York Times at the time: ‘This is perfect Cheever; it is perfect, period.’

‘The sky was clear that morning and there might still have been stars although he saw none. The thought of stars contributed to the power of his feeling. What moved him was a sense of those worlds around us, our knowledge however imperfect of their nature, our sense of their possessing some grain of our past and of our lives to come. It was that most powerful sense of our being alive on the planet. It was that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. The sense of that hour was of an exquisite privilege, the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love.’
John Cheever, ‘Oh What A Paradise It Seems’

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Dr. Freddie Baveystock

The multitalented, Big Chill DJ, who taught American Literature at Oxford University, worked in branding at some of Europe’s top agencies and now works as a school teacher.

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