So . . . it’s football season. We accept that millions of stout fans cheer for their favorite professional teams, real or fantasy, every Sunday. They love the fact that television can stretch a mere four quarters—each only 15 minutes in length—into a miraculous 3-hour and 12-minute broadcast. They don’t care that ball-in-play action only comprises 11 minutes of that 192-minute show. They're not disappointed that the rest of the time is divided between shots of the coaches, crowds, and cheerleaders (36 minutes); instant replays (15 minutes); and the players just standing around on the sideline (67 minutes). They don’t mind the 63 minutes of commercials.
For the rest of us, we can consume a good book in 3 hours and 12 minutes. Just give us a novella or a collection of flash or a memoir in brief. Here are ten of our favorite short page-turners. Ten books without commercial interruptions, without dead time--books you can't put down because every page, every sentence, moves the story forward, offers some amazing narrative trick, or astounds the reader with characters of shocking insight. Why lose yourself inside the mind-numbing lack of football during a football game when you can lose yourself inside a good book instead?
Melanie Rae Thon’s The 7th Man (New Michigan Press). This book, the cover a deceptive serene blue, takes the reader to death row. It shadows the extraction team of guards who rehearse the removal of the condemned man from his final cell, escorting him to the death chamber and strapping him down. The 7th Man of the title refers to the member of the team who must play the role of the condemned, walking the dead man’s walk and then climbing onto the gurney, so that the team can “practice” the execution.
Lacy Johnson’s The Other Side (Tin House). While attending graduate school, Johnson was abducted by an ex-boyfriend and taken to an underground, sound-proof room, which he had constructed with the help of friends and where he raped her and eventually planned to kill her. During the minutes in which he left the apartment to go and establish an alibi, Johnson managed to free herself and drive to the police station. This fast-paced memoir maps the victim’s movement from fear to understanding to survival.
Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (Penguin). In her well-recognized Southern voice, Allison delves into her family’s dysfunctional history, considers the transformation of gossip into family legend, and then, magically, shows us how tragedy can give rise to a writer whose voice cannot be denied. Funny, poignant, full of wisdom—all things Dorothy Allison.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Gray Wolf). This book, as much art as it is language, asks us to consider the roles that African-American men and women have been forced to suffer in the United States. The stories Rankine tells are as sharp and concise as poems, and she lets no one off the hook. Perhaps one of the most significant, critical books of the early 21st century.
Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life (Knopf). Every once in a while, a writer puts two things that have not been put together before, and the world changes. Here, Barnes examines the history of hot-air ballooning, and some where in the middle of section II or perhaps the beginning of section III, the reader finds that he is no longer talking about balloons and hot air and helium but instead love and loss and his wife’s death. The transformation of ballooning into metaphor is stunning, an amazing feat that helps us understand the surreal world of grief, a world we might not otherwise grasp.
Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night (Knopf). This novella was published posthumously and captures the story of an older man and woman (both alone after their spouses have died) who attempt to begin life again . . . until her son learns of the relationship and takes steps to end it. The prose is clean, but somehow also mournful. The most emotionally powerful book about love we’ve read in a long time.
Ito Romo’s The Border Is Burning (New Mexico Press). If you want a quick lesson in--an understanding of--the complexities of life along the border between Mexico and the United States, this collection of fiction is where to start. Romo is one of the few masters of Chicano noir writing today. The prose is lean; the stories, haunting.
Katie Cortese’s Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications). Cortese offers us domestic fabulism in conjunction with a look at the lives of women, what it means to be female: girls, mothers, matrons, living in situations so surreal they're pure truth. A baby devours her father before starting on her mother. A girl cooks the fish she bought as a pet. A pregnant woman rides a roller coaster. Each story is told in three pages or less!
Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire (University of Nebraska Press). In this short collection of personal essays/memoirs, Moore offers pop culture and pop quizzes, politics and antics, the comical and the somber. This collection of essays entertains, surprises, and teaches you every trick, every disguise, that creative nonfiction is capable of pulling off or wearing.
Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater (Rose Metal Press). Here’s where history and fiction fall into bed together. This novella swings us back to the life of Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife, her tragic struggle to love and/or escape him. Besides her, the cast of characters includes a tour guide, visitors to Fallingwater, historical figures who chronicled the building of the house, ghosts, etc. It is a story that teaches us how fact and fiction are inseparable twins more than they are enemies.