Succinct stories to devour on the run


Succinct stories to devour on the run

Books editor DEBORAH STEINMAIR considers lightweight reading matter that packs a punch for the traveller.


WHAT do you read on a trip? If you haven't been bitten by the Kindle bug, you carry a thin, smallish book. I have friends, inspired readers, who devour thick books on a journey and tear out the pages already read so their baggage grows lighter. I don't believe I'd be able to do that.

In transit, you read less than you thought you would. Around you, the whole world is new and strange. You hear languages of which you only understand a word here and there. On buses and trains, when you're not reading or playing games on your phone, you have time to think. An unexpected luxury. You find words for sensations, formulate insights in your head. You let one thought run its course, train and truck, through the tunnel and into the station. Windows open in your mind.

So, you're not going to read a suspense story as thick as a doorstep where you have to keep balls in the air and constantly connect lines and clues. You read something inspiring and timeless, devoid of storyline; moments stitched together. Something that makes you look at the world anew and that you can enjoy in small doses. Which you can open and close like a camping chair.

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I have two such books in my backpack and after almost two weeks I am only halfway through each: If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery and I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee.

If I Survive You centres on race and identity:

It begins with What are you? hollered from the perimeter of your front yard when you’re nine — younger, probably.


Why’s your mother talk so funny?

Trelawny's parents fled Jamaica for Miami to escape political violence. In the US he tries to fit in and becomes aware of the rigid class system based on skin colour: his hue is more or less like the Mexican boys' but they want nothing to do with him because he doesn't speak Spanish. In Jamaica they were considered white but in America he asks his father if they are black.

It's poetically written, funny, sad and bittersweet.

Kerneels Breytenbach alerted us to I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki. Like him, I'm a sucker for titles. This Korean bestseller is initially irresistible. Tteokbokki is a Korean rice cookie and of course the word resonates, bokkie. It's the highly personal story of a woman's revelations to her therapist. It's in dialogue form. She's depressed. It can be consumed in small bites. A reviewer said: “This book felt like a hug, like a pat on the back that says: ‘You’re doing fine. You’re okay — and even if you’re not, you will be, someday.'”

I thought the book became boring; the woman's endless insecurities, self-questioning and anxiety. I wanted to shake her and say, “Get over yourself". Maybe I don't understand dysthymic disorder.

More suggestions

Poetry collections that hit you on the side of the head with universal and daring truths encapsulated in a few words.

All Sigrid Nunez's books.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson: A striking short story filled with suspense and anxiety — it's set in a small American town with an annual ritual called “the Lottery". Only 32 pages.

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini: A little book of beautiful illustrations and little text. It's in letter form: a refugee father writes to his son on the eve of their sea voyage to freedom. Hosseini wrote it as a tribute to Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old from Syria whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. 48 pages.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid: Kincaid takes the reader on a journey to her childhood in Antigua. Tourists are clueless about the corrupt political system on the Caribbean island. 81 pages.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: An introduction to feminism, often misunderstood. The Nigerian writer explores feminism based on her own experience. 64 pages.

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol: Akaky Akakievich is an impoverished clerk. He loves his job, lives simply and is the laughing stock of his colleagues. When he is finally able to purchase a new overcoat, unexpected things happen. 57 pages.

Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly: Elizabeth Cochrane was a 19th-century journalist who went undercover to investigate and expose the horrid brutality of the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York's East River. 92 pages.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman: Backman is the author of the bestselling A Man Called Ove. This little book is about an elderly man who fights to cling to his most precious memories, which he tries to explain to his grandson. 97 pages.

Spring Water by John Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald is a poet and doesn't waste words. Here is a cleverly fabricated and humorous thriller in poetic form — the story of an ordinary man who is a serial killer. 83 pages.

Evidence of the Affair by Taylor Jenkins Reid: This short story is in letter form; the correspondence between two strangers whose spouses are embroiled in an affair. It's real and revealing. 86 pages.

Because it doesn't always have to be a huge commitment to read a book.

Who, what, where and how much?

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery was published by HarperCollins and costs R305 at Exclusive Books.

I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Sehee was published by Bloomsbury and costs R315 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

Jane Olivor sings One More Ride on the Merry Go Round:

♦ VWB ♦

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