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Two Pleasingly Compact Books – The New York Times

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With the holidays approaching, Read Like the Wind will catch its breath for a couple of weeks; the next edition will appear on Jan. 6, 2024. Merry everything.


Dear readers,

Twenty-two years ago, when Apple rolled out a nifty gadget called the iPod, its tag line was “1,000 songs in your pocket.”

I didn’t get what the fuss was about — the billboards in Times Square or the amazement on my husband’s face as he popped in a pair of earbuds at a futuristic mall store. I already had hundreds of songs on CD, a few ancient mixtapes labeled in my sister’s 1980s handwriting and a Walkman with orange foam headphones like tangerines sprouting from my ears. What more could an Indigo Girls fan need?

Here’s what I wanted — still want — in my pocket: a book, with a spine, covers and ink. Not a janky first-generation e-reader; not the tidy downloads I juggle now, as an editor at the Book Review. I’m happy to do my part for the environment, but show me a flower that smells sweeter than paper and I’ll treat you to a staff pick from my local bookstore.

Of course, when it comes to portability, or pocketability, size matters. For stashable entertainment, I turn to the little guys: books I can hold in the palm of my hand. Like tiny houses and teacup poodles, my favorites retain the essence of their prototypes without sacrificing quality. Unlike board books and cash register impulse buys — the bibliophile’s one-night stand — they contain grown-up fare, usually fiction, to be consumed in a single sitting and revisited on repeat.

A caveat: I’m not wild about shrunken classics. Perhaps you’ve seen the complete novels of Jane Austen and the Brontës tucked into a twee box along with all of Shakespeare’s plays? Let’s not do this. Give those icons some elbow room! And the dignity of legible print.

In my humble and increasingly cantankerous opinion, the best dainty fiction was born that way, not engineered to be cute. Here are two worthy picks — one plot per pocket, no batteries or charger required.

Elfishly (but never on-a- shelf-ishly),
Liz

PS. Shelves are for books!

I’d love to know how Meloy pitched this one to her publisher. The conversation might have gone something like this: “I’m writing about a woman named Eleanor who moves into a bungalow with her daughter and discovers that the place is infested with massive, incorrigible rats. Oh, and I’d like the book to be the size of a Chunky bar, with a color palette ripped from the pages of ‘The Preppy Handbook.’”

Yes, please.

If you have a beef with rodents, you might cast a wary eye on Meloy’s horror story, which unexpectedly touches a mother-daughter nerve. But if you have the stomach to look beyond the gold-embossed cover image, you’ll find a witty, wistful, cautionary tale about the lengths some of us will go to find a room of our own, or at least a modicum of independence.

Best of all, at a brisk 97 pages, “Devotion” allows you to sample the peculiar whimsy of Meloy’s heftier works, including “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” and “Do Not Become Alarmed.” If it were a square of Swiss cheese on a frilly toothpick at Costco, I’d immediately help myself to another. Then I’d invest in the whole wheel. I encourage you to do the same with Meloy’s oeuvre, starting with “Half in Love.”

Read if you like: “The Birds,” “The Fly”(especially the scene where Jeff Goldblum peels off his face), “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” (the book, not the movie), being mildly grossed out
Available from: AbeBooks, eBay, your library and/or your real estate agent or your exterminator (if they don’t have copies, they should)


Fiction, 2013

In her afterword to this “small morsel” — slightly bigger than “Devotion” but still more petite than a Kindle Paperwhite — Miller explains why she wrote her own version of Ovid’s Pygmalion story, in which a sculptor falls in love with a woman he carves from ivory.

“She is only called the woman,” Miller writes. “She is meant to be a compliant object of desire and nothing more.”

In the hands of the author who brought us “The Song of Achilles” and “Circe,” Galatea has attitude and as much agency as she possibly can. Trapped in bed, ministered to by a nurse who has reason to keep her there, she knows how to play an obedient patient — and how to bide her time.

“But it does seem foolish that he didn’t think it through, how I could not both live and still be a statue,” Galatea tells us.

Her liberation is bittersweet, to say the least. By the time you reach Miller’s note, it’s easy to forget that you’ve been inside Galatea’s head for a mere 50 pages. The final one comes as a shock; previous Pygmalion stories (“My Fair Lady,” “Pretty Woman”) won’t prepare you. But you’ll understand Galatea’s motivations, which really aren’t so different from Eleanor’s in “Devotion.”

The moral of both stories? Resourceful women flourish in tight spaces.

Read if you like: “The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin, “Convenience Store Woman,” by Sayaka Murata (a spritely paperback), “Black Cake,” by Charmaine Wilkerson, modern stories that read like fables
Available from: Libro.fm (narrated by Ruth Wilson, of “The Affair”), a classics professor’s bookshelf, Bookshop.org



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