Reading Larsen’s 1929 exploration of race and gender in our current cultural context feels like entering into a timeless moment in which many of the questions Larsen explored are still flash points. What is obvious in reading Passing is that Larsen was well aware of the ways in which people of mixed-race origin had often been portrayed, and her novel can be read on multiple levels. The central relationship between the two childhood friends, Clare and Irene, who encounter each other as adults and fall back into a close friendship, is the trellis upon which Larsen nurtures the tangled vine of history and the bloody blossoms it shows.
Soseki’s 1906 academic farce about the educated young city man who is sent out to the “sticks” to teach boys still provokes laughs. He refers to his fellow teachers by the nicknames he gives them, and Botchan discovers that “Redshirt” and “Porcupine” appear to be plotting against him after he fails to show any respect for their seniority. With students who delight in subjecting Botchan to practical jokes, and colleagues who think the new guy is a little too hung up on himself, there’s plenty here to laugh at. And for those familiar with historical Japanese culture, this book adds another layer to the nation’s story of modernization.
This slim novel contains a history of rage and suffering in its story of Ursa, the blues singer. Ursa wants someone to acknowledge the damage that was done to her foremothers by the slave master who fathered both her grandmother and her mother. Publishing in 1975, Gayl Jones explored the volatile territory later written about by giants such as Alice Walker and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Praised by both James Baldwin and Maya Angelou when it first published, this forgotten classic will forever strip away the whitewashing of slavery some keep trying to sell.
Frankenstein: The 1818 Text
Perhaps no book has had more misinterpretations of it committed to film and television treatments than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This gorgeous novel should be at the top of anyone’s list of books to read right away. Rather than the story of a murderous monster that stalks the countryside, Frankenstein contains within its pages a story of paternal abandonment, a homeless child in search of comfort, and a society unwilling to accept the less than perfect—written during a period when Shelley herself gave birth twice and was pregnant with her third. This is one of the original feminist texts that history has tried to dismiss as a horror novel.
Northanger Abbey is considered by many critics to be Austen’s most humorous novel as she skewers the genre of gothic fiction in order to have fun with it. When flighty socialite Catherine Morland is invited by her new friends, the Tilneys, to their ancestral home, Catherine’s love for all things gothic convinces her that she has discovered a secret about the venerable hall. Determined to investigate, Catherine sets off a series of comical events as she hunts down a murderer. Northanger Abbey shows Austen at her witty—and queen of shade—best.
In a Lonely Place
Dorothy B. Hughes
I was riveted by the story of Dix Steele, a decorated World War II pilot who has come home a hero but hasn’t learned how to live in the civilian streets of 1940s Los Angeles. Night after night, Dix goes out looking for something he cannot find. Hughes summons the mood of dark streets like no one else, and by the time readers discover that there’s a serial strangler of women whose path keeps crossing Steele’s, I doubt anyone else will be able to stop reading until the end. (After you finish the book, watch Gloria Graham and Humphrey Bogart as Dix Steele in the eponymous film.)
Leonora Carrington grew up to be a tremendous Surrealist painter, a writer, and a women’s rights advocate. As a child, she was expelled from a number of schools, and her parents sent her to art school when they ran out of options. Just as her career was starting to take off, however, World War II broke out, and in her terrifying flight across Europe that led her to refuge in Spain, Carrington began to internalize the outside chaos. Her parents intervened, interpreted her anxiety as mental illness, and had her committed to a mental hospital. This slim memoir is a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered why women’s emotions are pathologized if they are seen to be “too much.”
La Femme de Gilles
Elisa’s day has no purpose until her husband, Gilles, returns home from work. Even with toddler twins to look after and bearing the weight of another pregnancy, Elisa’s heart only starts beating when she knows Gilles is on his way home to her. Madeline Bourdouxhe constructs an obsessive love story that from the very first sentence will lead to tragedy, as Gilles becomes bored by Elisa’s complete devotion. Another layer exists in this deceptively simple story: Bourdouxhe wrote the novel just before the outbreak of World War II, and in its telling warns women readers about the dangers of ceding one’s thinking to someone else.
Imagine having a friend who fancies themselves a great artist. Because they are doing “art”—which means they’re broke—they never have money to cover the coffees the two of you buy, or the occasional dinner. And even though you suspect you’re be taking advantage of, you just find their friendship so refreshing that you put up with it. Now, move that situation to 1930s Paris, think about sitting in those cafes and walking those boulevards among the Plane trees, add humor and a touch of surrealism, and voila! Qu’est-ce que tu attends? (What are you waiting for?)
The Pure and the Impure
Colette referred to herself in later life as an “erotic militant.” She was born in 1873, a time when women’s sexuality was often pathologized as “abnormal” for straying outside sharply delineated perimeters. In this work, which Colette considered her best, she writes about her erotic life. For her, when desires are denied, they resurface later as perversions, which fractures the whole person that women are meant to be. This work is haunted by those who were forced to starve vital pieces of themselves in order to appear “normal” in a culture that was frightened of the power of the erotic.
The Blazing World and Other Writings
Margaret Cavendish wrote this novel in 1666, the historic year when the Great London Fire torched the city. In her vision, a young woman discovers a new world beyond the Arctic Circle, which she reaches through a “wrinkle in space” and becomes its empress. Her subjects are the talking animals whose society is more advanced than that of 17th-century Europe. When the empress organizes an invasion of her homeland, the animals deploy weapons not yet invented back home. Scholars have long argued over this work but agree that it is one of the first feminist, utopian, science-fiction universes in literary history.
My Brilliant Career
Sybylla longs to be a famous writer, but she is constantly being sent outside to work in the boiling sun of 1901 Outback Australia. When her family sends her to live with her grandmother, Sybylla is suddenly confronted by the attentions of a young man who wants to make her his wife, which she fears will end any and all hopes of being an author. Franklin wrote this novel when she was 16, and its spirit and panache have made it a favorite of many. A book for any young woman who has worried that her dreams are “too much” for their time.
The Enchanted April
Elizabeth von Arnim
In this 1922 novel, four friends depart frigid London for a holiday in the Italian sun. They rent a castle for the month of April, and in adventures that range from the comic to the romantic, the women discover that they do not have to be servants to the timekeeper’s clock. Instead, they emerge as practitioners of la dolce vita.
A Chill in the Air
In 1939, Italy had been under the Fascists led by Mussolini since 1922. And while Adolf Hitler was terrorizing other parts of Europe, there were no indications that the two men would form an alliance. But in Origo’s memoir of the years 1939–1940, she recounts the changes that took place in Italy as Mussolini edged closer to an alliance. Origo’s godfather was the American ambassador to Italy. As political events dictate enormous transitions, the biggest change takes place in Iris Origo herself. No longer an observer, she opts to become an activist.
As avid book-lovers, many of us pride ourselves on the breadth of our reading. We not only read all of the to-the-minute releases, but we also try to read the “classics” that we’ve been told are some of greatest books of all time. But who has time? One look at the 800-page doorstoppers, and you start wondering if you can count it as three books toward your reading goals.
But diamonds are never the size of bricks, and there are plenty of fantastic classic novels that clock in at under 300 pages. Consider Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Would it surprise you to know that the entire tale doesn’t reach page 100? Or that there’s a Jane Austen book you could easily finish in a weekend?
Here at Read It Forward, we know that there are only a few things that feel better than finishing the last page of a book that has been loved and being able to add one more book to the “completed” side of the TBR pile. Here are some suggestions for books that will make you feel like a better-read person while also providing a weekend’s worth of love, sorrow, sweetness, and light.
Want more weekend reads? We’ve got you covered.