The Best Short Books You’ll Ever Read

No time for War and Peace? These great short books, recommended by Features Editor Dawn Raffel, are all under 150 pages. Warning: You'll want to linger.

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    The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

    This modern classic, about a Latina girl growing up in Chicago, has been translated and taught all over the world. At 110 pages, it packs a punch all out of proportion to its size. Not surprisingly, given the compression and power of her work, Cisneros is also a poet.

    What's to Become of the Boy? by Heinrich Boll

    Boll (1917-1985) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. His brief, wrenching account of growing up in Nazi Germany, in a family that hated Hitler, will leave you thinking of nothing else.

    Natural Histories by Guadalupe Nettel

    In a newly-released 128-page collection, Nettel offers five entrancing tales in which animals—even fish and insects—reflect hidden aspects of human nature. Like many of the best short books, this one is in translation. Not to worry: Nettel's insights into marriage, family, and desire transcend borders and cultures.

    The Possession by Annie Ernaux

    In 62 laser-sharp pages, Ernaux zaps an obsessive, jealousy-fueled romance gone haywire. Is it truth or fiction? Probably a bit of both, and essential reading for anyone who's ever messed up in love.

    In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs

    This recently released novel, about a Pakistani boy imprisoned for falling in love with the wrong girl, is both exquisitely written and surprisingly inspiring. At 137 pages, it weighs in as one of the giants of 2014.

    The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

    For those who like their fiction hard-boiled, nobody did it better than Raymond Chandler, who died in 1959. The prolific master of the detective story turned to writing after he lost his job with an oil company during the Depression. The Big Sleep (134 pages) was his first novel to feature his famous P.I., Philip Marlowe.

    The Adventures of Mao on the Long March by Frederic Tuten

    Tuten's inventive, witty, genre-busting riff on Mao is a novel like none you've read. While parodying Hemingway, Kerouac, and Dos Passos, the author blends history, imaginary conversations, and quotes from real but unidentified sources. Hailed upon its 1971 release by heavyweights like John Updike, Iris Murdoch, and Susan Sontag, the 144-page book has enjoyed a near-cult following among writers and artists.

    The Awakening by Kate Chopin

    Kate Chopin wrote only two novels before she died in 1904. The first is largely forgotten, but the second, The Awakening, is now considered a classic. At the time of its publication in 1899, it was widely condemned for portraying a woman who, trapped in a loveless marriage, has an affair. In the 1970s, the 120-ish page book (it depends on your edition) found—and held—its audience.

    The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold by Kate Bernheimer

    Bernheimer draws on folklore and fairy tales to vividly evoke the enchantment of a young woman's inner life. This 128-page novel is part of a trilogy in which all three pieces are breathtakingly brief—wholly original and compellingly readable.

    The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

    Yes, we promised no War and Peace, but The Death of Ivan Ilych is your opportunity to read a masterwork by one of the greatest writers of all time. You can do this, dear reader. (Page count depends on which edition/translation you grab, but all are well under 150 pages.) No one is wiser than Tolstoy (1828-1910) about death and dying—or living, for that matter.

    Ravel by Jean Echenoz

    In 128 crystalline pages, Echenoz imagines the last ten years of Maurice Ravel's life. The novel opens in 1928 as the great eccentric composer embarks on a grand tour of the United States. Echenoz provides not only a rich portrait of a flawed genius, but also illuminates the times in which he lived.

    Goings by Gordon Lish

    Literary provocateur Lish has a towering reputation as an editor, teacher, writer, and wrecker of paradigms. His most recent book is a collection of 13 witty, slyly subversive stories, packing a wallop at 140 pages.

    Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo

    The Mexican author Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) did not begin writing until his 40s, and then published only one novel that was 124 pages long. Yet Pedro Páramo, embracing a world both past and present, is considered a masterpiece of 20th-century literature. None other than Gabriel García Márquez claimed that he knew the entire book by heart.

    The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

    Bestselling Baker's cheeky debut, first published in 1986, takes place on a one-story escalator ride, and—in 142 pages—defamiliarizes the ordinary world and makes it dazzlingly fresh.

    Deep Ellum by Brandon Hobson

    Hobson's recently published 120-page novel, about a troubled son's return home to his troubled mother, is deceptively simple, with a powerful emotional after-burn. Hobson has a remarkable ability to travel deep into a very dark place and come out plausibly on the side of light.

    For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange

    Shange's 1975 masterpiece defies category: It is performed as theater but reads like a gorgeously urgent prose poem. Eighty pages in print, this passionate, courageous book vividly brings to life the experience of being a woman of color.

    Into the War by Italo Calvino

    Italo Calvino (1923-1985) wrote fabulist tales that made him a literary rock star. He is perhaps best known for Invisible Cities (176 pages), based on an imaginary conversation between Marco Polo and the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan; that title sold millions of copies worldwide. However, this 128-page early work (to be reissued in September) features a trio of stories set in Italy in 1940 that offer a fascinating snapshot of the author as a young man.

    John the Posthumous by Jason Schwartz

    Schwartz's 148-page book lives in the shadowlands between fiction and poetry, and it pushes the edges of what it is possible to do with the written word. Schwartz enfolds fictional histories, a possible murder or two, and a slew of startling images in a work that delights and unnerves its adventurous readers.

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