Terrific Short Reads

Philippe Claudel
"As the First World War rages on, the daily life of a small town near the front is hardly disturbed by the report of artillery fire and the parade of wounded in its streets. But within the space of a year, this illusion of ordinary days is shattered by the deaths of three innocents—-a charming schoolmistress from “the north,” who captured every male heart only to take her own life without apparent reason; an angelic eight-year-old girl, who is strangled, her body abandoned by the canal; and the cherished wife of the local policeman, who dies in labor while her husband is hunting the little girl’s murderer.

"Twenty years on, the policeman still struggles to make sense of these mysteries that both torment and sustain him. In the pages of his notebooks he continually—-desperately, obsessively—-summons up the past and its ghosts. But excavating the town’s secret history will bring neither peace to him nor justice to the wicked. And as his solitary detective work continues on these long-closed cases, we come to see that his efforts can lead only to an unimaginable widening of the tragedy. In the policeman’s simple, plangent voice--full of unflinching scrutiny and the compassion of weary experience--Philippe Claudel gives us a tale of galvanizing suspense and an indelible meditation on morality."

Marilynne Robinson

"In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowa preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He 'preached men into the Civil War,' then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father - an ardent pacifist--and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.

"This is also the tale of another remarkable vision--not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten."

James Baldwin
"Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin's now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart."
Stewart O'Nan
"Perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall, The Red Lobster hasn't been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift. With only four shopping days left until Christmas, Manny must convince his near-mutinous staff to hunker down and serve the final onslaught of hungry retirees, lunatics, and holiday office parties. All the while, he's wondering how to handle the waitress he's still in love with, his pregnant girlfriend at home, and the perfect present he still needs to buy. 'Last Night at the Lobster' is a poignant yet redemptive look at what a man does when he discovers that his best might not be good enough."
Muriel Spark
When members of a group of London seniors start getting anonymous phone calls saying, "Remember you must die," they find that things they have done in the past have come back to haunt them.
Virginia Woolf

"Mrs. Dalloway chronicles a June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway–-a day that is taken up with running minor errands in preparation for a party and that is punctuated, toward the end, by the suicide of a young man she has never met. In giving an apparently ordinary day such immense resonance and significance–-infusing it with the elemental conflict between death and life–-Virginia Woolf triumphantly discovers her distinctive style as a novelist. Originally published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway is Woolf’s first complete rendering of what she described as the 'luminous envelope' of consciousness: a dazzling display of the mind’s inside as it plays over the brilliant surface and darker depths of reality."

Xinran

"Shu Wen and her husband had been married for only a few months in the 1950s when he joined the Chinese army and was sent to Tibet for the purpose of unification of the two countries. Shortly after he left she was notified that he had been killed, although no details were given. Determined to find the truth, Shu Wen joined a militia unit going to the Tibetan north, where she soon was separated from the regiment.

"Without supplies and knowledge of the language, she wandered, trying to find her way until, on the brink of death, she was rescued by a family of nomads under whose protection she moved from place to place with the seasons and eventually came to discover the details of her husband’s death. … Xinran has recreated Shu Wen’s journey, writing beautifully and simply of the silence and the emptiness in which Shu Wen was enveloped. The book is an extraordinary portrait of a woman and a land, each at the mercy of fate and politics. It is an unforgettable, ultimately uplifting tale of love loss, loyalty, and survival."

Calvin Trillin

Murray Tepper would say that he is an ordinary New Yorker who is simply trying to read the newspaper in peace. But he reads while sitting behind the wheel of his parked car, and his car always seems to be in a particularly desirable parking spot. Not surprisingly, he is regularly interrupted by drivers who want to know if he is going out.

Tepper isn't going out. Why not? His explanations tend to be rather literal: the indisputable fact, for instance, that he has twenty minutes left on the meter. Tepper's behavior sometimes irritates the people who want his spot. (Is that where you live? Is that car rent-controlled?) It also irritates the mayor, Frank Ducavelli - known in tabloid headlines as "Il Duce" - who sees Murray Tepper as a harbinger of what His Honor always calls "the forces of disorder". But once New Yorkers become aware of Tepper, some of them begin to suspect that he knows something they don't know. And an ever-increasing number of them are willing to line up for the opportunity to sit in his car with him and find out.

Toni Morrison
"The Bluest Eye (1970) is the first novel written by Toni Morrison. It is the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove--a black girl in an America whose love for its blond, blue-eyed children can devastate all others--who prays for her eyes to turn blue: so that she will be beautiful, so that people will look at her, so that her world will be different. This is the story of the nightmare at the heart of her yearning and the tragedy of its fulfillment."
Thornton Wilder

On Friday noon, July the Twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.

"With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey,' one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world. By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death -- and to the author's timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition."

Mark Haddon

Despite his overwhelming fear of interacting with people, Christopher, a mathematically-gifted, autistic fifteen-year-old boy, decides to investigate the murder of a neighbor's dog and uncovers secret information about his mother.

Graham Greene

The novelist Maurice Bendrix's love affair with his friend's wife, Sarah, had begun in London during the Blitz. One day, inexplicably and without warning, Sarah had broken off the relationship. It seemed impossible that there could be a rival for her heart. Yet two years later, driven by obsessive jealousy and grief, Bendrix sends Parkis, a private detective, to follow Sarah and find out the truth.

Michael Chabon

"In deep retirement in the English country-side, an eighty-nine-year-old man, vaguely recollected by locals as a once-famous detective, is more concerned with his beekeeping than with his fellow man. Into his life wanders Linus Steinman, nine years old and mute, who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his sole companion: an African gray parrot. What is the meaning of the mysterious strings of German numbers the bird spews out--a top-secret SS code? The keys to a series of Swiss bank accounts perhaps? Or something more sinister? Is the solution to this last case -- the real explanation of the mysterious boy and his parrot--beyond even the reach of the once-famed sleuth?"

Jeffrey Ford
"The Great Depression has bound a nation in despair -- and only a privileged few have risen above it: the exorbitantly wealthy ... and the hucksters who feed upon them. Diego, a seventeen-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant, owes his salvation to master grifter Thomas Schell. Together with Schell's gruff and powerful partner, they sail comfortably through hard times, scamming New York's grieving rich with elaborate, ingeniously staged séances -- until an impossible occurrence changes everything.

"While 'communing with spirits,' Schell sees an image of a young girl in a pane of glass, silently entreating the con man for help. Though well aware that his otherworldly 'powers' are a sham, Schell inexplicably offers his services to help find the lost child -- drawing Diego along with him into a tangled maze of deadly secrets and terrible experimentation."

Tennessee Williams

It is the story of a wealthy, fiftyish American widow, recently a famous stage beauty, but now 'drifting.' The novel opens soon after her husband's death and her retirement from the theater, as Mrs. Stone tries to adjust to her aimless new life in Rome.

Anton Chekhov

With St. Petersburg awash with extravagant, dissolute bureaucrats concerned only with increasing their vast riches, a secret movement infiltrates one of its members into one such household.

Henry James

A governess battles to save the souls of her two young charges from evil spirits.

John Steinbeck
Adopting the structure and themes of the Arthurian legend, Steinbeck created a "Camelot" on a shabby hillside above Monterey on the California coast and peopled it with a colorful band of knights. As Steinbeck chronicles their thoughts and emotions, temptations and lusts, he spins a tale as compelling, and ultimately as touched by sorrow, as the famous legends of the Round Table.