By Jared Richards, Learning and Information Services Supervisor
In the last few months, I haven’t had as much time or the attention span to focus on reading books. Because of this, I have found myself gravitating towards quick reads. I have always been a fan of this format, particularly short stories, but I appreciate it now more than ever. It allows me to jump into new worlds, experience new things, and be home in time for lunch.
I was initially drawn to “The Souvenir Museum” by Elizabeth McCracken because of the cover. It is bright yellow with a teal balloon animal in the center, and I can say with certainty that I have yet to read a bad book that has a balloon animal on the cover. To be honest, this is the first one I’ve come across that meets that description, but one-for-one is still one-hundred percent, and now the bar is set pretty high because I enjoyed this collection.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is that it has several stories featuring the same main characters at different points in their lives. We meet them in the first story as a fairly new couple visiting Ireland to attend the boyfriend’s sister’s wedding. And after popping into their lives several more times, the book ends with them, twenty years later, finally getting married themselves.
Most of the books I read tend to happen in a very short period of time, relatively speaking. A few days or years in a person’s life, or even the history of an empire in the context of all human civilization. Blips on their relative radars. But I do enjoy when I stumble across a story where I can follow characters and get to know them at various points throughout their lives, and it’s even better in McCracken’s collection because it’s just a quick peek, and then you’re off to something else.
In a similar, bite-sized vein, there are essay collections, different from short stories because they typically feature commentary on a specific topic, rather than following a traditional story format. “You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays” by Zora Neale Hurston, was published earlier this year, and contains not only familiar Hurston essays, but also ones that have never before been published.
Hurston was a prolific writer, publishing work on various topics for more than thirty years. Following her death in 1960, Hurston’s work fell out of the public consciousness but has since come back, more popular and powerful than ever.
The titular essay, which was originally supposed to be published in 1934 but never was, feels timelier than ever, and it is hard to believe it was written so long ago. Hurston points out that how Black people are portrayed, often by white authors, fails to capture who Black people actually are, generally relying on exaggerated stereotypes. She uses the analogy of margarine and butter, saying “In short, it has everything butterish about it except butter.” Hurston goes on to say that not including the nuances that all people have, and just collecting the highlights, doesn’t allow you to capture the whole person. She also paraphrases American humorist Josh Billings in saying, “It’s better not to know so much, than to know so much that ain’t so,” calling out the people who think they have it figured out but inevitably miss the mark. It is a very enlightened take on the importance of people writing their own stories, written over eighty years ago.
Lastly, to quickly diverge from the more traditional quick-reads realm of short stories and essays, we have cookbooks. There may be people out there who read cookbooks cover-to-cover, and to be fair, some are written that way, but that is not for me. I jump in, grab a recipe, and walk away with some good food to eat while reading short stories and essays.
“Ruffage” by Abra Berens features vegetables as the main characters. Berens tells you how to buy and store each vegetable before going into multiple recipes for each, in different forms like raw, roasted, and pureed, and includes variations for each recipe to help you change things up and keep it interesting.
Her latest book, “Grist,” is similar but features grains, beans, seeds, and legumes. Whereas vegetables tend to be seasonal items that can spoil quickly, the main characters of this book are pantry staples that have a long shelf life and will be there when you need them. No matter the season, you will find recipes worth trying in these books.