You might have the time but not the mental bandwidth for “Anna Karenina” right now, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s completely normal (even editors at the Book Review are having trouble concentrating). Maybe you want to save the thick books for a less unsettling time. If that’s the case, here are a few short, quick options that can help take your mind off the real world.
Is your family getting a little too close for comfort? Seek validation in “Dept. of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill. Or if you’d like to be distracted by a different crisis altogether, consider Offill’s new book, “Weather.” You can guess what that one’s about.
We know you read “The Great Gatsby” in high school, but now might be a good time to return to West Egg to lose yourself in a big party on the lawn. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic transports you to a different era.
If you’re looking for short stories, meet Lorrie Moore. She’s an undisputed queen of the form, tackling real-life problems head-on, with unflagging kindness. We recommend “Birds of America,” followed closely by “Like Life.” Ready for something longer? Consider her (still fairly short) novel “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?”
You don’t have to be a writer to find peace in Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life,” where she reflects on nature, creativity, friendship and inspiration. A favorite quote to get you started: “Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”
Want a feeling of camaraderie and “I am woman, hear me roar”? Consider “We Should All Be Feminists,” by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. You can read it in an hour, and it should provide sufficient galvanization until the next time you’re allowed to march down the street in a crowd, shouting into a bullhorn.
Sometimes you need to temper your anxiety with humor — or sex. In “Mrs. Caliban,” by Rachel Ingalls, Dorothy is struggling. Her son has died (and so has her dog); her husband has become dour and uncommunicative. But things begin looking up when she acquires a lover — a strapping amphibian named Larry. “To say that Larry finds the middle-aged Dorothy attractive is to put it mildly,” our reviewer wrote in 1986.
If you have a school-age person on the premises, chances are you also have a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s “The House On Mango Street.” There’s a reason this coming-of-age novella has earned a spot in middle school curricula across the land: It’s impossible not to root for Esperanza as she figures out who she is and how she fits into the world. You don’t have to have a mouthful of braces to appreciate Cisneros’s message: Bloom where you’re planted — and be brave. Conveniently, she conveys this in short vignettes that are easy to dip in and out of.
Read about flying (instead of doing it yourself) in David Szalay’s “Turbulence,” composed of 10 spare, thoughtful set pieces, which all take place on planes. “Each chapter picks up from the last, but presents a new protagonist, as if a moral baton were being passed,” our critic Dwight Garner wrote in his review. “The chapters come full circle. In the end, the book resembles a snake that’s begun to consume its own tail.”
If you want to take your mind off what’s happening in our world, dive into the very strange one at the heart of “Annihilation,” the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Why does the government keep sending expeditions into an exceedingly nasty place called “Area X,” despite the fact that almost no one has ever made it out alive?
You’ve probably read (or seen) “And Then There Were None” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” Try picking up an Agatha Christie novel you’ve never heard of, like “Cat Among the Pigeons,” a sweet but stiletto-sharp tale of diamonds, gym class and murder set at a posh girls’ boarding school.
“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” packs such a serious punch, it’s hard to believe it’s only 128 pages (we checked). In this short, taut detective story, Gabriel García Márquez tells the story of two young men who have undertaken a brutal murder they never wanted to commit. Our reviewer wrote, “I found ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ by far the author’s most absorbing work to date. I read it through in a flash, and it made the back of my neck prickle.”
If you want to read about a situation that echoes the one we find ourselves in now, try William Maxwell’s slim 1937 autobiographical novel, “They Came Like Swallows.” Told from the point of view of a husband and two young sons, it follows the death of their wife and mother in the influenza pandemic of 1918. If that plot sounds too timely for comfort, Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is another slim novel with great impact.