As you may know from regular reading, I like short books.
I know, it’s dumb, but sometimes (like with the book I’m reading now, “A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar” by Suzanne Joinson) authors just don’t know when to call it a book. Life’s short, so I respect authors who can get in and out of a story without too much padding. It’s even better when they leave a reader with something to think about.
That’s the case with two short novels I read late last year that I still think about. They couldn’t be more different in theme or style, but both pack a punch.
“A Meal in Winter: A Novel of World War II” came out in July last year. In it, three German soldiers seeking to shirk their daily duties, volunteer to prowl the Polish countryside for Jews to bring back and kill. It seems they’re unnerved by the actual killing and find the rounding up more morally palatable. It’s bitter cold, but the three have a plan: They’ll find some place far enough away from their camp and sit down to a meal of food they pilfered from the commissary.
One of the soldiers is worried about his child who has taken up smoking. One is worried that if they don’t bring back a victim or two they might face discipline. The third, the unnamed narrator, coldly relates the day’s events.
At just 144 pages, the book is so taut I don’t want to ruin it for you; I’ll only say that before the day is out, each one of the men must make a decision that will haunt them. They will likely haunt you, too.
“A Meal in Winter” is the first book by French author Hubert Mingarelli to be translated into English and I look forward to reading more.
The second book, Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night” is from 2015, published after his death. Set in the fictional Holt, Colo., where all his other books are set, it tells an unconventional love story.
Haruf takes no time getting things going: On the first page, Addie, a widow in her 70s, walks down the block to ask Louis, a widower she’s known for 40 years, but had no real friendship with, if he might come spend the night with her every now and then. She’s been having trouble sleeping and she feels if there’s someone else in bed with her she might feel less lonely. No sex, though. Louis can’t see any real reason to say no.
What develops is a friendship, then a love between two people who know who they are and what is important. This is contrasted with the stories the two tell each other in the dark before they fall asleep of the way they mucked up their marriages because they were so young and so caught up in the way things should be, or could be, instead of how they actually are. It’s a beautiful, charming and engaging story.
Of course, that doesn’t last. Like in every small town, people snicker. Addie and Louis are old enough to be above that. But family ties bring bigger threats, and prove almost too much for the lovers.
Often I’ll read a book and say to myself: “This is what I’d do”so it all ends up happily. But Haruf is such a careful, subtle writer, you can understand that the choices people make in life are, for better or worse, often made for them. Even the wisdom that comes with age can’t change that.