Compiled by Liz Cettina and Emma Raddatz
Image: “Untitled,” by Bryan Schiavone, 2016.
With summer quickly winding down and your list of books to read lengthening even more quickly, pick up one of these 17 slim books—all under 170 pages—to squeeze in before summer ends.
The Women by Hilton Als
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, 160 pp.
Daring and original, The Women is at once a memoir, a psychological study, a sociopolitical manifesto, and an incisive adventure in literary criticism. It is conceived as a series of portraits analyzing the role that sexual and racial identity played in the lives and work of the writer’s subjects: his mother, a self-described “Negress,” who would not be defined by the limitations of race and gender; the mother of Malcolm X, whose mixed-race background and eventual descent into madness contributed to her son’s misogyny and racism; brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men; and the late Owen Dodson, a poet and dramatist who was female-identified and who played an important role in the author’s own social and intellectual formation.
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated from the Spanish by Ruth L.C. Simms
NYRB, 2003, 120 pp.
Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy’s novella is a story of suspense, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. Inspired by Bioy Casares’s fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction’s now famous postwar boom. Octavio Paz writes, “The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel.”
Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral
Yale University Press, 2012, 96 pp.
Eduardo C. Corral is the 2011 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, joining such distinguished previous winners as Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin, and John Ashbery. Corral is the first Latino poet to win the competition. Seamlessly braiding English and Spanish, Corral’s poems hurtle across literary and linguistic borders toward a lyricism that slows down experience. He employs a range of forms and phrasing, bringing the vivid particulars of his experiences as a Chicano and gay man to the page. Although Corral’s topics are decidedly sobering, contest judge Carl Phillips observes, “one of the more surprising possibilities offered in these poems is joy.”
Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions, 2006, 144 pp.
Following her mother’s untimely and mysterious death, Delia embarks on a voyage of discovery through the streets of her native Naples searching for the truth about her family. This stylish fiction from the author of The Days of Abandonment is set in a beguiling but often hostile Naples, whose chaotic, suffocating streets become one of the book’s central motifs. The book is a story about mothers and daughters, and the complicated knot of lies and emotions that binds them. The New Yorker writes, “Ferrante’s polished language belies the rawness of her imagery.”
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories Publishing, 2015, 128 pp.
Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the USA and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another. Winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction, Signs Preceding the End of the World tells the story of Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages – one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
W.W. Norton & Co., 2014, 128 pp.
Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella of unexplained horror and nightmarish transformation became a worldwide classic and remains one of the most widely read works of fiction in the world. It is the story of traveling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous insect. In her new translation of Kafka’s masterpiece, Susan Bernofsky strives to capture both the humor and the humanity in this macabre tale, underscoring the ways in which Gregor Samsa’s grotesque metamorphosis is just the physical manifestation of his longstanding spiritual impoverishment.
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, 81 pp.
“If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by aeroplane, you will land at the V. C. Bird International Airport. Vere Cornwall (V. C.) Bird is the Prime Minister of Antigua. You may be the sort of tourist who would wonder why a Prime Minister would want an airport named after him–why not a school, why not a hospital, why not some great public monument.” So begins Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay, which shows us what we have not yet seen of the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up. Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright by turns, in a Swiftian mode, A Small Place cannot help but amplify our vision of one small place and all that it signifies.
Água Viva by Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler
New Directions, 2012, 128 pp.
A meditation on the nature of life and time, Água Viva (1973) shows Lispector discovering a new means of writing about herself, more deeply transforming her individual experience into a universal poetry. In a body of work as emotionally powerful, formally innovative, and philosophically profound as Clarice Lispector’s, Água Viva stands out as a particular triumph. New Directions says Água Viva shows “Lispector at her most philosophically radical,” and The Times Literary Supplement writes, “Her images dazzle even when her meaning is most obscure, and when she is writing of what she despises she is lucidity herself.”
In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano
Translated from the French by Chris Clarke
NYRB, 2016, 128 pp.
In the Café of Lost Youth is vintage Patrick Modiano, an absorbing evocation of a particular Paris of the 1950s, shadowy and shady, a secret world of writers, criminals, drinkers, and drifters. The novel centers on the enigmatic, waiflike figure of Louki, who catches everyone’s attention. Through the eyes of four very different narrators, including Louki herself, we contemplate her character and her fate, while Modiano explores the themes of identity, memory, time, and forgetting. The Guardian writes, “Modiano is a pure original. He has transformed the novel into a laboratory for producing atmospheres, not situations—where everything must be inferred and nothing can be proved.”
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Wave Books, 2009, 112 pp.
A lyrical, philosophical, and often explicit exploration of personal suffering and the limitations of vision and love, as refracted through the color blue, while folding in, and responding to, the divergent voices and preoccupations of such generative figures as Wittgenstein, Sei Shonagon, William Gass, and Joan Mitchell. Bluets confirms Maggie Nelson’s place within the pantheon of brilliant lyric essayists. Bookforum writes, “Nelson’s expressive style springs from her subject as much as the content, in turn, inflects her vocabulary, tone and structure. Seeking such reciprocity…may radically redefine poetry, as it increasingly becomes the genre that is not one.”
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Graywolf Press, 2016, 128 pp.
Here he is, husband and father, scruffy romantic, a shambolic scholar—a man adrift in the wake of his wife’s sudden, accidental death. And there are his two sons, who, like him, struggle in their London flat to face the unbearable sadness that has engulfed them. Part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief, Max Porter’s startlingly original and haunting debut combines compassion and bravura style to dazzling effect. The New York Times Book Review writes, “[Porter] has an excellent ear for the flexibility of language and tone, juxtaposing colloquialisms against poetic images and metaphors. The result is a book that has the living, breathing quality of the title’s ‘thing with feathers.’”
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Graywolf Press, 2014, 160 pp.
Citizen recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seemingly slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society. The New Yorker calls Citizen “vital” and The Guardian writes, “Her eloquent militancy about racism is arresting; reading sometimes feels like eavesdropping on America.”
The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia
Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Anthony Oliver
NYRB, 2003, 136 pp.
A man is shot dead as he runs to catch the bus in the piazza of a small Sicilian town. Captain Bellodi, the detective on the case, is new to his job and determined to prove himself. Bellodi suspects the Mafia, and his suspicions grow when he finds himself up against an apparently unbreachable wall of silence. A surprise turn puts him on the track of a series of nasty crimes. But all the while Bellodi’s investigation is being carefully monitored by a host of observers, near and far. They share a single concern: to keep the truth from coming out. This short, beautifully paced novel is a mesmerizing description of the Mafia at work. The Daily Telegraph writes, “The most intelligent detective story I have ever read.”
The Coral Sea by Patti Smith
W.W. Norton & Co., 2012, 96 pp.
Through the linked pieces of The Coral Sea, Patti Smith honors her comrade-in-arms Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989). She tells the story of a man on an ocean journey to see the Southern Cross, who is reflecting on his life and fighting the illness that is consuming him. Metaphoric and dreamy, this tale of transformation arises from Smith’s knowledge of Mapplethorpe from a young man to a mature artist; his close relationship with patron and friend, Sam Wagstaff; his years surviving AIDS; and his ascent into death. The Coral Sea is Smith’s lyrically compelling recasting of her grief to recapture Mapplethorpe’s life in the past and his future in his art. Rich in evocative details, it shows the man beneath the persona.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Harper Collins, 2009, 160 pp.
Originally published in 1961, Muriel Spark’s novel takes place at the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods, in her attraction to the married art master, in her affair with the bachelor music master, and—most important—in her dedication to “her girls,” the students she selects to be her crème de la crème. Fanatically devoted, each member of the Brodie set is “famous for something,” and Miss Brodie strives to bring out the best in each one. Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Follow me,” and they do. But one of them will betray her.
Fairy Tales by Robert Walser
Translated from the German by James Reidel and Daniele Pantano
New Directions, 2015, 108 pp.
Fairy Tales gathers the unconventional verse dramolettes by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Narrated in Walser’s inimitable, playful language, these theatrical pieces overturn traditional notions of the fairy tale, transforming the Brothers Grimm into metatheater, even metareflections. Snow White forgives the evil queen for trying to kill her. Cinderella doubts her prince and enjoys being hated by her stepsisters. The Fairy Tale itself is a character who encourages her to stay within the confines of the story. Walter Benjamin writes, “One of the most profound creations.”
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Penguin Random House, 2016, 128 pp.
Written in the form of a standardized test, Multiple Choice invites the reader to respond to virtuoso language exercises and short narrative passages that are thought-provoking and often absurd. It offers a new kind of reading experience, one in which the reader participates directly in the creation of meaning. It’s about love and family, authoritarianism and its legacies, and the conviction that, rather than learning to think for ourselves, we are trained to obey and repeat. Serious in its literary ambition and playful in its execution, it confirms Zambra as one of the most important writers working in any language.