Baldwin’s confessional, grave novel follows an engaged American man abroad who falls in love with what he’s forbidden himself: another man, an Italian, named Giovanni. Set in 1950s Paris, Giovanni’s Room is essential: a moving and exacting novel of ambiguity, remorse, and the difficulty of self-acceptance.
McGlue is Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novella, and it sets up the sort of strangeness—and, at times, repulsiveness—we’ve come to expect in her later works. Set in 1851 Salem, Massachusetts, McGlue is in custody after allegedly and drunkenly killing his best friend. McGlue isn’t convinced of the crime, and his remorseless thoughts drive the engine of this slow-burning narrative.
The White Room
In this lyrical meditation of grief, Han Kang’s unnamed narrator wanders around the snow-filled city of Warsaw while she muses on all things white, from the innocuous—a silent dog—to the profound and devastating—the rice cake–colored skin of the baby who died in the narrator’s mother’s arms long ago, an event inspired by Kang’s family history. Beautiful and impossible to pin down, it’s a remarkably absorbing read.
The protagonist of The Invoice leads a simple life: a part-time job at a video store, a tiny apartment, a love of movies. He’s satisfied with his bare-bones existence until the government introduces a “happiness tax,” leaving him, an underachiever, owing quite a bit more than anyone at the top. Refreshingly odd, with a distinctive voice and gentle humor, The Invoice speaks volumes about the capacity for joy and what it lends us.
The New Me
For fans of Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Halle Butler’s dissatisfied and anxious protagonist, Millie, will scratch that particular itch. Thirty years old and still temping, Millie spends her days hoping for an exciting email and her evenings watching an SVU-like show while thinking about all the theoretical improvements she could make to her life. At turns darkly comedic and vaguely hopeful, this book is a capital-M mood.
Susan Minot’s first book chronicles the Vincents, a sprawling New England family of nine: a religious mother, an alcoholic father, and their seven “monkeys.” A minimalist novel-in-stories, each chapter lurches forward with new conflicts and deceptions, mining the tenderness and tragedy of a family so extensive they’re cocooned in their own universe, for better or worse.
Dept. of Speculation
Jenny Offill’s much-loved portrait of a marriage at its breaking point—as funny as it is heartbreaking—can be read in a single sitting, but don’t be surprised if you feel the need to immediately start again from the beginning. Invoking the code name they once used in love letters about their bright and unknown future, the wife addresses her husband and attempts to make sense of how they’ve gotten to now.
Levels of Life
Julian Barnes wrote Levels of Life after the death of his wife, and the tripartite book consists of three sections: one history, one fiction, and one memoir. The final section, in which Barnes writes candidly about the emotions that have consumed him since his wife’s death, is so precise in expressing grief—a universal yet indefinable emotion—that it will leave you reeling.
What We Lose
In spare yet rich prose, Zinzi Clemmons reflects on race, family, and grief through the lens of Thandi, a young mixed-race woman coming of age in America, watching her mother die of cancer, and moving through life without the person she needs most. Thandi’s search for meaning and her reflections on her mother’s childhood in Johannesburg merge into a multigenerational tale of lost and remade identity.
Short books are special. Able to be consumed in a night or a weekend, they feel more intimate, like an experience you lived through or a story you were told in the dark. I love a 700-page masterpiece as much as the next binge-reader, but huge books can be a specific taste, best consumed in long stretches of uninterrupted days. Here are nine sparkling slim reads that reach for—and achieve—brilliance, full-on character, narrative, and stunning prose.
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