A book about books! I love it! I don’t usually read books that review other books, but I was interested in building up the classics in my TBR (To Be Read) list and thought, sure, why not? I am so glad I did because Davis’s short reviews, not only of the short book he recommends, but also the vignettes of the author and the tidbits about their other novels inspired me to produce a Classics Reading Challenge on my Storygraph page. [You can find it here.]
What I really enjoyed about Great Short Books were the depth of the reviews and discussion around the novel. Davis gave enough information about the novel to intrigue, but not too much as to spoil the desire to read it myself. The authors too, though I’d read many of them already, became more fully fleshed out in my mind as people, more than merely producers of the works I love to read.
If you’re looking to expand and explore new literary choices, Great Short Books delivers the perfect small-bites information you need to fuel your own adventure.
My New Classics Reading Challenge Inspired by Davis’ book:
1. The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia
The glitter and cynicism of Rome under Mussolini provide the background of what is probably Alberto Moravia’s best and best-known novel — The Woman of Rome. It’s the story of Adriana, a simple girl with no fortune but her beauty who models naked for a painter, accepts gifts from men, and could never quite identify the moment when she traded her private dream of home and children for the life of a prostitute.
2. The Conformist by Alberto Moravia
Secrecy and Silence are second nature to Marcello Clerici, the hero of The Conformist, a book which made Alberto Moravia one of the world’s most read postwar writers. Clerici is a man with everything under control – a wife who loves him, colleagues who respect him, the hidden power that comes with his secret work for the Italian political police during the Mussolini years. But then he is assigned to kill his former professor, now exiled in France, to demonstrate his loyalty to the Fascist state, and falls in love with a strange, compelling woman; his life is torn open – and with it the corrupt heart of Fascism. Moravia equates the rise of Italian Fascism with the psychological needs of his protagonist for whom conformity becomes an obsession in a life that has included parental neglect, an oddly self-conscious desire to engage in cruel acts, and a type of male beauty which, to Clerici’s great distress, other men find attractive.
3. Two Women by Alberto Moravia
FIRST PUBLISHED in English in 1958, Two Women is a compassionate yet forthright narrative of simple people struggling to survive in war. The two women are Cesira, a widowed Roman shopkeeper, and her daughter Rosetta, a naive teenager of haunting beauty and devout faith. When the German occupation of Rome becomes imminent, Cesira packs a few provisions, sews her life savings into the seams of her dress, and flees with Rosetta to her native province of Ciociara, a poor, mountainous region south of Rome.
Cesira’s currency soon loses its value, and a vicious barter economy, fraught with shifty traffickers and thieves, emerges among the mountain peasants and refugees. Mother and daughter endure nine months of hunger, cold, and filth as they await the arrival of the Allied forces. Cesira scarcely cares who wins the war, so long as victory comes soon and brings with it a return to her quiet shopkeeper’s life.
Instead, the Liberation brings tragedy. While heading back to Rome the pair are attacked by a group of Allied Moroccan soldiers, who rape Rosetta and beat Cesira unconscious. This act of violence and its resulting loss of innocence so embitters Rosetta that she falls numbly into a life of prostitution. Throughout these hardships Moravia offers up an intimate portrayal of the anguish wrought by the devastation of war, both on the battlefield and upon those far from the fray.
4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
In 1936 George Orwell travelled to Spain to report on the Civil War and instead joined the fight against the Fascists. This famous account describes the war and Orwell’s own experiences. Introduction by Lionel Trilling.
5. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Running into a long-ago friend sets memories from the 1970s in motion for August, transporting her to a time and a place where friendship was everything—until it wasn’t. For August and her girls, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them.
But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion.
Widowed at thirty, beautiful, resourceful Therese Lafirme is left alone to run her Louisiana plantation. When Therese falls in love with David Hosmer, a divorced businessman, her strong moral and religious convictions make it impossible for her to accept his marriage proposal. Her determined rejection sets the two on a tumultuous path that involves Hosmer’s troubled former wife, Fanny.
At Fault is set in the Post-Reconstruction rural South against a backdrop of economic devastation and simmering racial tensions. Written at the beginning of her career, it has parallels to Chopin’s own life and contains characters and themes that prefigure her later works, including The Awakening.
Short fiction by much-more-than-local-color-writer Kate Chopin. Includes Ma’ame Pelagie , a character who shows up again later.
8. Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers
A powerful and passionate tale is set on a southern army post –a human hell inhabited by a sexually disturbed officer, his animalistic wife, her lover, and the driven young private who forces the drama to its climax…
9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.
10. Black Boy by Richard Wright
Black Boy is a classic of American autobiography, a subtly crafted narrative of Richard Wright’s journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. An enduring story of one young man’s coming of age during a particular time and place, Black Boy remains a seminal text in our history about what it means to be a man, black, and Southern in America.
11. Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann (0 books added)
Buddenbrooks, first published in Germany in 1901, when Mann was only twenty-six, has become a classic of modern literature.
It is the story of four generations of a wealthy bourgeois family in northern Germany facing the advent of modernity; in an uncertain new world, the family’s bonds and traditions begin to disintegrate. As Mann charts the Buddenbrooks’ decline from prosperity to bankruptcy, from moral and psychic soundness to sickly piety, artistic decadence, and madness, he ushers the reader into a world of stunning vitality, pieced together from births and funerals, weddings and divorces, recipes, gossip, and earthy humor.
In its immensity of scope, richness of detail, and fullness of humanity, buddenbrooks surpasses all other modern family chronicles. With remarkable fidelity to the original German text, this superb translation emphasizes the magnificent scale of Mann’s achievement in this riveting, tragic novel.
12. The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg
The Dry Heart begins and ends with the matter-of-fact pronouncement: “I shot him between the eyes.” As the tale—a plunge into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation, and bitterness—proceeds, the narrator’s murder of her flighty husband takes on a certain logical inevitability. Stripped of any preciousness or sentimentality, Natalia Ginzburg’s writing here is white-hot, tempered by rage. She transforms the unhappy tale of an ordinary dull marriage into a rich psychological thriller that seems to beg the question: why don’t more wives kill their husbands?
13. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Today F. Scott Fitzgerald is better known for his novels, but in his own time, his fame rested squarely on his prolific achievement as one of America’s most gifted writers of stories and novellas. Now, a half-century after the author’s death, the premier Fitzgerald scholar and biographer, Matthew J. Bruccoli, has assembled in one volume the full scope of Fitzgerald’s best short fiction: forty-three sparkling masterpieces, ranging from such classic novellas as “The Rich Boy,” “May Day,” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” to his commercial work for the Saturday Evening Post and its sister “slicks.”
For the reader, these stories will underscore the depth and extraordinary range of Fitzgerald’s literary talents. Furthermore, Professor Bruccoli’s illuminating preface and introductory headnotes establish the literary and biographical settings in which these stories now shine anew with brighter luster than ever.
14. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (0 books added)
Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.
Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous–it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.
15. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Every year, Ceyala “Lala” Reyes’ family–aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, and Lala’s six older brothers–packs up three cars and, in a wild ride, drive from Chicago to the Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother’s house in Mexico City for the summer. Struggling to find a voice above the boom of her brothers and to understand her place on this side of the border and that, Lala is a shrewd observer of family life. But when she starts telling the Awful Grandmother’s life story, seeking clues to how she got to be so awful, grandmother accuses Lala of exaggerating. Soon, a multigenerational family narrative turns into a whirlwind exploration of storytelling, lies, and life. Like the cherished rebozo, or shawl, that has been passed down through generations of Reyes women, Caramelo is alive with the vibrations of history, family, and love.
16. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Set in the contemporary Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. James Baldwin’s brilliant narrative delves into the mystery of loving with a sharp, probing imagination, and he creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the heart.
17. If This Is A Man by Primo Levi
Primo Michele Levi was a chemist and writer, the author of books, novels, short stories, essays, and poems. His unique 1975 work, The Periodic Table, linked to qualities of the elements, was named by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as the best science book ever written.
Levi spent eleven months imprisoned at Monowitz, one of the three main camps in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex (record number: 174,517) before the camp was liberated by the Red Army on 18 January 1945. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive.
The Primo Levi Center, dedicated “to studying the history and culture of Italian Jewry,” was named in his honor.
18. July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
For years, it had been what is called a “deteriorating situation.” Now all over South Africa the cities are battlegrounds. The members of the Smales family—liberal whites—are rescued from the terror by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his village. What happens to the Smaleses and to July—the shifts in character and relationships—gives us an unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites.
19. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewarsship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.
20. The Inheritors by William Golding (1 book added)
When the spring came the people – what was left of them – moved back by the old paths from the sea. But this year strange things were happening, terrifying things that had never happened before. Inexplicable sounds and smells; new, unimaginable creatures half glimpsed through the leaves. What the people didn’t, and perhaps never would, know, was that the day of their people was already over.
From the author of Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors is a startling recreation of the lost world of the Neanderthals, and a frightening vision of the beginning of a new age.
Books you’ve added to this prompt:
21. Darkness Visible by William Golding
At the height of the London blitz, a naked child steps out of an all-consuming fire. Miraculously saved yet hideously scarred, tormented at school and at work, Matty becomes a wanderer, a seeker after some unknown redemption. Two more lost children await him: twins as exquisite as they are loveless. Toni dabbles in political violence, Sophy in sexual tyranny. As Golding weaves their destinies together, as he draws them toward a final conflagration, his book lights up both the inner and outer darknesses of our time.
22. The Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is lost in the underworld of 1830s New Orleans. Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and the pawing hands of a schoolteacher hellbent on marrying him, he jumps aboard the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey which challenges our notions of freedom, fate and how we live together. Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative and philosophical allegory.
23. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
It is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at University College of London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence’s response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.
24. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau.
25. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1 book added)
Cain’s first novel – the subject of an obscenity trial in Boston and the inspiration for Camus’s The Stranger – is the fever-pitched tale of a drifter who stumbles into a job, into an erotic obsession, and into a murder.
26. Sula by Toni Morrison (1 book added)
This rich and moving novel traces the lives of two black heroines from their close-knit childhood in a small Ohio town, through their sharply divergent paths of womanhood, to their ultimate confrontation and reconciliation.
Nel Wright has chosen to stay in the place where she was born, to marry, raise a family, and become a pillar of the black community. Sula Peace has rejected the life Nel has embraced, escaping to college, and submerging herself in city life. When she returns to her roots, it is as a rebel and a wanton seductress. Eventually, both women must face the consequences of their choices. Together, they create an unforgettable portrait of what it means and costs to be a black woman in America.
2 thoughts on “Great Short Books: A Year of Reading Briefly by Kenneth C. Davis”
What a great idea! For some reason it never crossed my mind that novellas would be a great way to read more classics. I’ll be adding some of these to my tbr for sure!
What a great idea!! For some reason it never crossed my mind that novellas would be a great way to read more classics. I’ll definitely be adding some of these to my tbr!