A Summer of Short Reads

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Short reads are ideal for the summer break: easy to pack a few into a suitcase for variety, they offer an opportunity to read works by a new author and gauge whether you like their style without the commitment of an entire novel, and aren’t too reminiscent of your lengthy impending reading list. As you enjoy some well-earned rest, or hop on a train to somewhere new, take a moment to peruse one of these brief yet challenging works.

an opportunity to gauge whether you like their style without the commitment of an entire novel

Starting off with some poetry, Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife is a tour through the perspectives of the women standing beside the ‘great’ men of history. From ‘Queen Herod’ to ‘Frau Freud’, this collection from the former poet laureate glides through time and place to offer a snapshot of the lives of these women, silenced or ignored, now given voices which question, mock and control. Duffy’s poems are individually varied in tone; read together this cacophony of voices unites in a call to be heard.

Whether Homer’s Odyssey is the cherished tale which kindled your love of the ancient world or an unwelcome reminder of an ill-prepared tutorial, even the most limited knowledge of the existing story is adequate to enjoy Margaret Atwood’s novella The Penelopiad. Atwood combines the voice of Penelope reminiscing from Hades with the intermittent return of that of the maids slaughtered on Odysseus’s return, in a harrowing reflection of the chorus which characterises ancient Greek drama. Extending the tendrils of possibility out from the existing tale, Atwood weaves and unpicks a way through the myth to the voice of the devoted wife.

Short reads and light reads are not quite one and the same, as Edith Wharton exemplifies in Ethan Frome. In all its brevity of form and language, this novella is a perfect example of tragic fiction which captures the reality of early twentieth century New England life. The snowy climes are brought into sharp focus, while the frame narrative edges closer to the story of the mysterious, deformed Frome.

in all its brevity of form and language, this novella is a perfect example of tragic fiction

An exercise in extreme brevity, Charles Dickens’s psychological ghost story The Signalman examines the inexplicable experiences of a signalman working in isolation. Founded on Victorian fears about the impact of developing technology on the human mind and likely informed by Dickens’s own experience in a train crash in June 1865, this is perhaps one to avoid if travelling by train.

For Sci-fi fans, H.G. Wells’s classic The Time Machine is a surprisingly short read considering its far-reaching investigation into the future of human existence. As concern grows about the environmental impact of the industrial society born in the period in which Wells began writing, this novella remains particularly relevant, offering an increasingly worrisome insight into what the future could hold for humanity.

approach as single stories or tackle the collection in full

Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories offers the ideal flexible read: approach as single stories or tackle the collection in full. With highlights such as ‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’ and, of course, ‘Brokeback Mountain’, this collection encompasses harrowing tragedies and comic interjections of magical realism, with many of the narratives combining genres to form a peculiar window into Proulx’s experience of Wyoming. While this collection is tied together by the geographical focus on the state’s natural challenges, Proulx also emphasises subjects such as environmental activism and sexuality and covers a variety of historical and contemporary settings. This is an eclectic survey of Wyoming life, written so vividly that no transatlantic flights are necessary to appreciate Proulx’s sketches of the state.

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