19 Books You Won’t Put Down

Who do you think you are? Who do you wish you were—or thank your stars you’re not? Some of these books will give you a deeper understanding of your own humanity. Some will let you experience the lives of others, showing you what it’s like to rewrite the rules, have oodles of cash, aim to transform the world, be a legend in your own time. To help you experience your life more fully or envision other lives you might someday lead, we invite you to sample these possibilities

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"Transatlantic"

by Colum McCann; Random House

Near the end of this gorgeous novel, one character considers her fascination with what she calls the swerve of the world: “What was a life, anyway? An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other.” McCann’s subject is the way the past seems to exist on these small shelves, alive within the present. He follows the trajectories of historical figures (abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass; Senator George Mitchell; Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, who made the first nonstop aerial crossing of the Atlantic in 1919) and weaves a web of intersecting stories across two continents and three centuries, illuminating “the grand disorder of things.” In so doing, he creates the best kind of order: a paean to the public lives and private heartaches of characters real and imagined, a symphonic ode to the triumphs and devastations of the human spirit. —Dani Shapiro

 

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"Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites"

by Kate Christensen; Doubleday

Christensen’s breathless voice commands this sweet and savory memoir of what she ate when, from the soft-boiled eggs and buttered toast of her hardscrabble counterculture childhood in the 1970s to the “ambrosial glue” of chicken potpie to the sophisticated simplicity of oysters orendive leaves with cheese and capers. Food sees her through relationships good and bad; through marriage, infidelity and heartbreak; through family drama; and through her recent, satisfying renewals. “Starting over in midlife is an interesting thing,” she writes. “The past doesn’t go away or even recede behind you; it stays with you.” Her appetites have deepened as she has discovered the essence of a life well lived: a full meal. —Susanna Sonnenberg

 

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"Kind of Cruel"

by Sophie Hannah; Putnam

Testy and sleep-deprived Amber Hewerdine visits a hypnotist for help with her insomnia, blurts out three little words and finds herself in the middle of a mystery so intricate, it could keep you up nights. What does a stranger’s seemingly random murder have to do with the sudden and suspicious death of Amber’s best friend or the baffling disappearance, 10 years earlier, of her sister’s family on Christmas Eve? Hot on this convoluted trail we have our insomniac heroine; a pair of uneasily married detectives; and a hypnotherapist who dispenses shrinky wisdom, messes with our heads and ultimately provides the byzantine “why” to this crafty psychological whodunit.  —Amanda Lovell

 

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"Night Film"

by Marisha Pessl; Random House

Noirish, impish and stylish, this literary thriller delivers twists, kinks and characters to care about. Investigative reporter Scott McGrath is still smarting from an ugly, career-wrecking libel case involving reclusive director Stanislas Cordova, whose shockingly dark movies have a rabid cult (and perhaps occult) following. When Cordova’s beautiful 24-year-old daughter, Ashley, is found dead in an abandoned warehouse, an apparent suicide, McGrath digs into what he thinks may be a gothic murder plot set in motion by her father. Accompanied by a pair of unlikely assistants—a teenage coat-check girl and a drug dealer with a murky connection to the departed girl—McGrath descends deep into creepiness. The chills are offset by Pessl’s wry observations and the fun of encountering artifacts she has convincingly created on the page—police reports, journalist’s notes, magazine articles. Night Film gets two thumbs up. —Judith Stone

 

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"Smile at Strangers and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly"

by Susan Schorn; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Lean in; kick ass. Schorn comes to karate because “the idea of losing weight while hitting things and yelling was appealing,” but she stays when the dojo’s teachings—standing ground, seeking balance, finding peace—turn out to be an entire off-the-mat worldview. Schorn is pissed and funny, scrappy and generous, and whatever your connection to martial arts (e.g., none), her black belt memoir will inspire and delight. Some of the highly technical karate sequences may remind you of the way an excited kid can talk and talk about a video game you’ve never played, but Schorn makes you want to be someone who can’t be knocked over. “I spent many years as a fearful person,” she writes. “Karate made me less fearful, and more of a person.” —Catherine Newman

 

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"Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers"

by Janet Malcolm; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Janet Malcolm has a terrifying mind, and I mean that as a compliment. You wouldn’t want her attention trained on you—that is, unless you were prepared to see yourself stripped bare by her brilliant and incisive powers of observation. In this stellar collection, Malcolm is hell-bent on getting to the essence of her subjects, from the slipperiness of ’80s art star David Salle (the book’s title essay is structured as 41 attempts to nail him to the page) to the guilty pleasures of the Gossip Girl books. These thought-provoking essays illuminate what should be a tenet of journalism: that it is possible to be unsparing and empathetic in the same moment.  —Dani Shapiro

 

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"The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls"

by Anton DiSclafani; Riverhead

What could 15-year-old Thea Atwood have done that would get her banished from her family home—a 1,000-acre Florida paradise complete with an orange grove, ample room to ride and, let it be said, serpents—and hustled off to a sequestered girls’ school in the mountains of North Carolina? (At least until, her father says, “all this mess is settled.”) That’s the page-turning question at the heart of this immensely readable debut novel. Set against the gathering clouds of the Great Depression, it’s part horse story, part boarding school adventure, part coming-of-age/falling-from-grace saga, with a hot-blooded, hard-riding, not always likable heroine. “I was fearless,” Thea says. “It was a trait that served me well in the ring, but badly in life.”  —Amanda Lovell

 

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"You Are One of Them"

by Elliott Holt; Penguin

Like a matryoshka doll, Elliott Holt’s bold, electric debut novel artfully unpacks its secrets. In the early I’d-rather-be-dead-than-Red ’80s, two 10-year-old girls—wan, pensive Sarah and her best friend, sunny, wholesome Jenny—write letters urging Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to end the Cold War. Sarah’s message suspiciously disappears; Jenny’s makes her an international celebrity. By seventh grade, the two friends aren’t speaking. A decade later, after Jenny’s plane mysteriously crashes en route to a speaking engagement, Sarah travels to post-perestroika Russia to find out what really happened. This is an unflinching tale of self-deception and the struggle to lead an authentic life.  —Kristy Davis

 

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"Fin and Lady"

by Cathleen Schine; Sarah Crichton Books/FSG

When you are named for a French word meaning “the end,” it is not surprising that you cultivate a passion for the New York Times obituary pages. By age 11, ex–farm boy Fin is also mixing martinis, attending Swedish movies and combing through the New York Review of Books. His campus of inappropriate studies is Greenwich Village in the ’60s, his instructor a bon vivant half sister who, upon their mother’s death, has been entrusted with Fin’s upbringing. Lady is a collector of suitors, driver of turquoise Karmann Ghias and purveyor of liberal chic. Schine stirs a jigger of Auntie Mame and a spritz of baby boomer touchstones into a sparkling comic cocktail.  —Jan Stuart

 

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"Crazy Rich Asians"

by Kevin Kwan; Doubleday

In this shamelessly entertaining novel—a Debrett’s Peerage of the Pacific Rim—an impending society wedding in Singapore brings together a cast of characters flush with old and new money. A surprise to all is Rachel Chu, an economics professor from New York who flies in with her handsome boyfriend, Nicholas Young. Though Rachel knows Nick only as a fellow academic in America, he’s the scion of a family so powerful that its ancestral home is blacked out on Google Earth. Will Nick throw himself away on what Singapore snobs call an ABC (American-born Chinese)? Not if his mom and Rachel’s rich-bitch competitors can help it. Jane Austen it’s not—but this glittery romp has fun crashing the party of an unfamiliar world.  —Judith Coyne

 

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"Amy Falls Down"

by Jincy Willett; Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press

The excruciating opening of this novel, in which our ungainly heroine tumbles and gets knocked out by a backyard birdbath, is at the same time hilarious and almost unbearably disturbing. But what goes down in chapter one must come up in chapter two, as the fall turns Amy’s life upside down in unexpectedly positive ways. An interview she doesn’t remember revives her long-dormant writing career and helps her reconnect with friends, colleagues and her better self in this warm, witty, devilishly clever tale of silver linings and second chances. —Pamela Redmond Satran

 

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"The Faraway Nearby"

by Rebecca Solnit; Viking

In her circuitous, sumptuous memoir, Solnit struggles to pick up the pieces of a past that morphs and warps every time she approaches it. This is a book that explores the power of storytelling by spinning yarn after yarn for the reader, one tale leading to the next and the next and finally circling back to its central sore spot—the author’s relationship with her dying mother. Each circle proves that connections are always possible, no digression is really irrelevant and within every story is a binding string, hooking humans together.  —Lauren Slater

 

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"Sparta"

by Roxana Robinson; Sarah Crichton Books/FSG

When Conrad, a well-off Westchester boy and classics student at Williams, tells his parents he is joining the Marines, his mother, admiring his “brave, mournful eyes, the slanting cords in his neck,” thinks, “He can’t be risked.” But he is risked, repeatedly, for four years in Iraq, where he suffers and commits violence that for most Americans is simply unimaginable. And therein lies the problem with coming home; safe now but racked with shame, with rage, with brain-scrambling PTSD, Conrad confronts the bottomless chasm between here and there, between a Marine and his iPhone-obsessed countrymen who can’t find Iraq on a map. Robinson’s compelling and sensitive novel is born of the desire to help close that stultifying gap.     —Pam Houston

 

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"Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations"

by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner; Simon & Schuster

In 1988, Ava Gardner, a star once defined by her dangerous beauty, recruited Peter Evans to ghost her memoir. She’d had a stroke, thought she might have emphysema and was so broke that she was selling off her dresses. In her London apartment and in a series of drunken early-morning phone calls, Gardner mused about suicide (“I'd like to do it in one take”) and recalled, in often salty detail, her husbands and lovers, including Mickey Rooney (“He taught me how much I enjoyed sex”), Howard Hughes (“a sulky bastard”) and her greatest love, Frank Sinatra (“He always calls at Christmas”). Gardner died in 1990 of natural causes without signing off on the memoir. But Evans kept his tapes and shortly before his death last year produced a book in which Gardner lives up to her own self-assessment: “She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam.”  —Susan Toepfer

 

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"Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell"

by Katherine Angel; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This is the thinking woman’s sex book, a clear-eyed, poignant meditation on what it really means to live in a female body. “It is dangerous to be a girl. Dangerous to be exciting to others,” Angel writes. “And so, to be excited, then—that just adds fuel to the fire.” The author can quote Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag while describing, fairly explicitly, her own erotic encounters. But her writing is so playful and poetic that you stay with the book for the pleasure of watching her feel and think. She recounts her personal history with a bracing honesty that cuts through the noxious political fog around issues like pornography and abortion. And—oh, yes—she tells a hell of a love story.  —Marcia Menter

 

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"The Widow Waltz"

by Sally Koslow; Viking

Imagine that you have a husband whose cheating heart suddenly gives out on him. Once the body is buried and the shocking will is read, how will you navigate the tricky intersection of betrayal and loss? “I had a life,” says long-married Georgia Waltz. “Now I have a situation.” Koslow’s wry, funny novel parses the ways this unmerry widow handles her two grown daughters and her frail but still snappish mother, all the while coping with financial insecurity and the tart aftertaste of loss.  —Cathleen Medwick

 

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"The Green Boat"

by Mary Pipher; Riverhead

After reading this gentle but urgent guide to overcoming denial and despair in the face of impending environmental disaster, you may go completely compostal. Psychologist Pipher explores why, when faced with dramatic evidence that climate change and the toxification of our air and water may permanently wreck the planet, we don’t alter the way we live or band together to change lethal public policy. She offers a sensible plan for transforming feelings of panic or powerlessness into meaningful action and makes a strong case for the emotional and political power of small steps, such as collecting those veggie scraps. Composting is easy, and it doesn’t stink, unlike the fate of the earth if we don’t wake up and smell the petrol.  —Judith Stone 

 

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"Claire of the Sea Light"

by Edwidge Danticat; Knopf 

 

The daughter of a widowed fisherman disappears on her seventh birthday at the beginning of this intense, lyrical cycle of interconnected stories set in Villa Rose, Haiti. The sea itself ––“the turquoise in the distance and its light blue ripples up close, the white foam at the peaks of the waves”–– is a central character, ebbing and flowing through the varied lives of the townspeople: a fabric vendor, a school principal, a radio talk show host, a hairdresser, a fatherless boy, and the lost girl. All are at the mercy of their hearts’ desires, a “love [that] is like kerosene.  The more you have, the more you burn.” –Dani Shapiro

 

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"A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home"

by Sue Halpern; Riverhead

Committing to a dog is committing to a dare, in which the dog says: I dare you to love me as much as I am prepared to love you, in spite of your human limitations, in spite of your inevitable grief. Halpern ventures further into the discomfiting conundrum of love and death by entering therapy training with her beloved mutt, Pransky, and later making regular vis-itsto a local nursing home. There, she is re-educated in the seven virtues (restraint, prudence, faith, fortitude, hope, love and justice), her teachers both the residents, who are warmer, smarter and more alive than she ever expected, and Pransky herself, who gives the old people the chance “to express affection, to forget their afflictions, and to be their essential, authentic, original, loving selves.” This is a deeply-moving, required-reading-for-any-one-striving-for-personhood sort of book, insisting that “goodness is . . . a currency that each of us gets to invent and denominate” and “the reward for getting through life is life itself.”  —Pam Houston

 

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Next: Travel as Reinvention: 10 Books about Personal Growth on Vacation

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First Published Thu, 2013-08-15 11:30

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