The Sentence and A List of Short Perfect Novels

Louise Erdrich is not one of my favorite authors but at the recommendation of a good friend, I have been trying to read her latest book The Sentence. Libby, my online librarian, first gave it to me as a hot pick – 7 days to read, but it came and went back without my looking at it and I ordered it again. Next, Libby offered it to me as a “skip the line” book – again seven days to read it. This time I made it to the second chapter before it whooshed back to the library, despite my effort to renew. Suddenly, it was there again – seven days to read – and I have been making an effort. The library may be sending me a message – I need to read this book. Slow and steady but only half way through with three days left before it will automatically return. Will I make it this time?

The story of an independent bookstore owner haunted by the ghost of a woman who died reading a book should be more than I need to keep me reading, but Erdrich, as she often does in her books, cannot resist incorporating endless pages of Native American history, culture, folklore, and more. I just want the story.

The pandemic suddenly came into the pages, and the craziness of the first few months of contagion and the ever changing survival advice was familiar, but before Tookie decides to close the store in March, 2020, her last customer comes in to hoard books instead of milk and toilet paper. Tookie creates a list of “Short Perfect Novels” I thought worth saving – some I have read. Added to the list is Jane Gardam’s Old Filth books, among my favorites.

Since I started writing this post, I did finish the book, and was satisfied with its happy ending. The author includes many lists of books mentioned in the narrative, including Lincoln in the Bardo in her list of “Ghost Managing Books,” Euphoria in her “Books for Banned Love” list, and titles for Indigenous Lives, Indigenous Poetry, Indigenous History and Nonfiction. My favorite list is this:

Tookie’s Short Perfect Novels

  • Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad
  • The All of It by Jeannette Halen
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Tookie says “these are books that knock you sideways in around 200 pages. Between the covers there exists a complete world. The story is unforgettably peopled and nothing is extraneous. Reading one of these books takes only an hour or two but leaves a lifetime imprint…”

The Sentence took longer to read, but I’m glad I finally did.


9781590171998_p0_v1_s192x300After discovering Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, I did not expect to experience the thrill of a new author with the story of a man who resonated with me – until I found Stoner by John Williams.  Maybe it was the descriptions:  academia with its internal politics; the students – some lackluster, some promising; a professor’s unrequited love of the Canon; or the hazy acknowledgement of professorial dedication.  But more likely, it was the florid descriptions of place and time – Missouri in the early twentieth century, and the wonder of looking inside the head of a man who struggled with life and love.

The first lines of Stoner assure the reader as the story unravels: Stoner stays in his job at the university for forty years, is recognized by his peers as well as students as an outstanding teacher, yet never rises above the rank of assistant professor.  For anyone familiar with the university system, this information is tantalizing.  With so many years at one institution, something must have happened to keep him from rising in the ranks to full professor – or even jumping over to administration.  And so Williams slowly reveals Stoner’s life, from his young life on a farm to a doctorate in literature, through a strange relationship with a wife, a tentative bond with a daughter, a steamy love affair with a graduate student, and an epiphany of honor affecting his career.

The story is slow and methodical, with pithy passages requiring thoughtful attention.  I enjoyed the immersion into Stoner’s thoughts and could easily visualize his surroundings. Perhaps this book is not for everyone, but for me, it was one of the best I’ve read.

The novelist Colum McCann called it “one of the great forgotten novels of the past century … so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic.” The New York Times called it “a perfect novel.”

Thanks to my good friend and fellow reader/writer for introducing me to Stoner – “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of ” (from Tim Kreider, The New Yorker).  I agree with Steve Almond of The New York Times – you should seriously read Stoner right now.

Related Reviews:

The Hollow Land

Although a recent review of Jane Gardam’s  The Hollow Land promised a new Unknownpaperback version of her children’s book, I found the 1981 hardback in my library. I was rewarded with a picture of a young Gardam on the back cover – quite different from the recent pictures I’ve seen of the 86-year-old, but still familiar.

The pages are yellowed and spotted, but the stories are as wonderful as Meg Wolitzer promised in her New York Times review.

In 1981, Gardam had already been nominated for the Booker Prize, had written three novels, and four children’s books. The Hollow Land won the Whitbread prize and her Old Filth, the book that led to her rediscovery in America, was decades in the future.

The nine stories center around the friendship of two boys, Harry Bateman, a city dweller from London and Bell Teasdale, from the Cumbria hillside where the book gets it name. Harry’s family rents a summer house on the Teasdale farm.  From the beginning, the differences between the city and country cultures almost stop the action with a misunderstanding between the families.  But the mothers resolve the issue, and the beat goes on. Secret hideaways, scary tall-tales around the fire, and daily adventures connect the stories, yet the down-home flavor of the dialogue and the British colloquialisms can be daunting and sometimes interrupt the action.  But this is Jane Gardam, and for readers who stick with the stories, Gardam beautifully reveals the world through the eyes of a child,

Related Review: New York Times Review of The Hollow Land


A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam’s “A Long Way from Verona” has the same British flavor and intensity as her more well known books (Old Filth) and she is one of my favorite storytellers. Ten year old school girl Jessica Vye’s world during World War II includes trying to understand her parents while navigating the expectations of her teachers and friends. Her perspicacious attitude and independent spirit had me cheering for her and wondering about her determination “to always tell the absolute truth.”

When the story opens, a famous writer visiting Jessica’s school tells her she is “beyond all doubt,” a writer, after she gives him some of her work to read. This validation fuels her defiance when her teachers feed her treacle in class, and prompt her to find the classics from Bronte to Dickens and Hardy instead of he class assignments.

Gardam’s supporting cast includes a boyfriend for Jessica, an understanding teacher, and a commiserate friend. An extraordinary scene has her far from home when a bomb explodes, but most of the action revolves around family and school.

When I saw this slim volume in one of the last bookstores in my neighborhood, I decided it would fit neatly into my carryon. As I am about to land in Gardam’s home turf of Britain, her language and wit have been the perfect segue to the beginning of my British adventure.

Last Friends

One of the travel souvenirs I would have liked to have left behind – a debilitating headcold – had me seeking the comfort of hot broth and tea, and a new Jane Gardam book – “Last Friends.” Sometimes stuffed ears are a blessing.

If you are a fan of “Old Filth,”you will remember the three principals: Eddie Feathers, known as Old Filth – Failed in London, Try Hong Kong; Betty, his wife, the focus of the second book – “The Man With the Wooden Hat” – and Terry Veneering, Old Filth’s nemesis. Gardam opens with the funeral of Feathers, months after the service for Veneering. The locals fill in the background to remind you of the men’s rivalry in both law and love for Feathers’ wife, Betty – and the irony that brought them together in old age.

Gardam uses her last book in the trilogy to focus on Veneering’s young life, his escape from poverty, and the insidious influences that shaped him.
Veneering – named for a social climbing character in Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend” – was born Terry Vanetski. His father was a Russian left behind by his circus troupe when he fell during a performance and injured his back.

Changed his name and went south. Something you could spell more easier…His mother worked the coal-cart round the streets. His dad were a Russian spy…”

Like Old Filth, Veneering manages to escape his roots.

Two minor characters reappear, Fiscal-Smith, now 90 years old, and as drudgy as ever, and Dulcie, the widow of Judge Willy Williams, who conducted Old Filth’s wedding to Betty, and who brought Veneering to Hong Kong. Gardam uses these two characters to move back and forth between the past and the present, with poignant and sometimes funny observations on old age. As they reminisce, they reveal more secrets about the three main characters and about themselves.

With her usual attention to details, her witty and vivid language, and her skillful weaving of soap opera intrigue with historical notes and personal drama, Gardam’s last book in the trilogy is pure pleasure…whether or not you have read the first two books. And her ending has a note of whimsical hope for old age.

“Fiction got us through…the two old trolls sat over their cards thinking occasionally of Tolstoy.”

Gardam is a treasure.

Review of Old Filth

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat