MORE's Summer Reading Spectacular!

Grab your passport! Novel or memoir, cookbook or thriller, travel tale or brilliant fiction, these 35 reads satisfy that urge to unplug from your same old world and escape to distant shores. So sit back, turn the page and choose your adventure

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'This Beautiful Life' by Helen Schulman

It is every parent’s nightmare. Your übersmart, too-sensitive teenage son goes to a party and makes out with a lovesick middle school girl, disentangling himself before making the kind of mistake teenage boys are famous for. The next morning she e-mails him a video of herself to prove that she’s “old enough” for anything he could imagine. Rattled, he forwards the e-mail to his best friend—who wouldn’t?—and soon the video is all over the school, all over the city, all over the world. It’s not only the timely topic, the delectable build of tension and the impeccable pacing that make this novel so completely absorbing but also the complexity and care with which Schulman renders a family in free fall.— Pam Houston

The Submission by Amy Waldman

Fiction about 9/11 often reeks of exploitation, but there’s not a whiff of it in this dynamic, emotionally evocative novel about a contest to design a New York City memorial. The winner of the blind competition turns out to be Mohammad (aka Mo) Khan, a Virginia-born architect whose very name spurs outraged demands for his withdrawal and whose plan to create a tranquil urban garden at the site of the tragedy is condemned as a terrorist plot. Waldman artfully interweaves Mo’s dilemma with the stories of beautiful, conflicted Claire, a 9/11 widow, and other members of victims’ families, as well as those of craven politicians, media vultures and anxious American Muslims. Empathetic about grief yet astute about opportunism, former reporter Waldman’s first novel is a sure-footed, sensitive triumph.
— Caryn James

'An Unquenchable Thirst' by Mary Johnson

This powerful memoir, which chronicles Johnson’s 20 years as a lay sister in Mother Teresa’s order, reads like a novel—a racy, dishy, passionate one—but is also an exacting account of a woman growing into her own soul. It’s moving, even harrowing, to watch Johnson stand up for her own intelligence and sexuality in an environment where women are forbidden even casual touch, where a kiss from a predatory novice brings on a flood of physical need for which there’s no outlet except self-flagellation. Ultimately, Johnson learns compassion for her own imperfections and those of others—including Mother Teresa, whose portrait she draws indelibly. When at last she leaves the order, it’s not with bitterness but with love.—Marcia Menter

'The Buddha in the Attic' by Julie Otsuka

“On the boat we were mostly virgins,” begins this mesmerizing tale of Japanese mail-order brides imported to California in the 1920s. Told in a first-person-plural voice that feels haunting and intimate, the novel traces the fates of these nameless women in America—silent wives, sturdy mothers; prostitutes, maids, field hands—until the Pearl Harbor attack and their subsequent internment. Otsuka extracts the grace and strength at the core of immigrant (and female) survival and, with exquisite care, makes us rethink the heartbreak of eternal hope. Though the women vanish, their words linger: “This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” —Susanna Sonnenberg

'Turn of Mind' by Alice LaPlante

Jennifer White, a once-brilliant hand surgeon now grappling with Alzheimer’s, might not be able to tell her daughter from her dead mother, but she still knows her pha-langes from her metacarpals. So when her best friend, a sanctimonious busybody (you’d want to kill her, too) is found murdered, the evidence—four expertly amputated fingers—points just one way. Told from Jennifer’s increasingly erratic point of view, this dazzlingly adroit debut novel is full of suspense, rueful humor and scalpel-sharp insights into the intricacies of love and friendship—as well as the resilience of the human spirit.—Amanda Lovell

'The Summer of the Bear' by Bella Pollen

What’s real and what’s imagined is at the heart of this gem of a novel, which is one part fairy tale, one part international thriller and all-parts engrossing family drama. After her diplomat husband dies at the British Embassy in Bonn, Letty Fleming takes off with her children for a remote Scottish island. While she battles suspicions that her spouse was a spy, nine-year-old Jamie copes by developing a mystical connection to an escaped grizzly bear, and his sister, Georgie, has flashbacks of a trip she took with her father that may help unlock his secret. Pollen’s lyrical and often witty prose makes this a stirring tale of loss and self-discovery.—Lynn Schnurnberger

'The Astral' by Kate Christensen

Harry Quirk has never had to try very hard. A man of a certain age with a talent for writing poetry, the charming and introspective narrator of this novel has always found women willing to pay his bills, publish his poems and meet his carnal, physical and psychological needs. That is, until the day his editor moves to London, his best friend falls for a man half her age and his wife (and muse) kicks him out of their Brooklyn apartment. Harry is left with no choice but to contemplate change, the kind that’s happening to his beloved neighborhood, to his fractured family and maybe, if he is smart and lucky, within himself. —P.H.

'Untold Story' by Monica Ali

The premise of Ali’s latest novel is irresistible: A British princess gasping for breath in “the toxic and highly flammable stratosphere of fame” fakes her death at sea, alters her features with plastic surgery and embarks on a precarious new life in (where else?) America. “Princesses were always locked in towers in fairy tales,” writes longtime Diana-watcher Ali. “In reality there wasn’t a tower and there were no locks. You stood at the top of a crystal staircase a mile high in glass slippers, and there was no way down without breaking your neck.” A canny parable of self-reinvention.—Cathleen Medwick

'The Beginners' by Rebecca Wolff

Could there be a more unreliable narrator than a teenage girl? Precocious, introspective 15-year-old Ginger Pritt is mesmerized by the flamboyant married couple who have taken up residence in Wick (a nod to Updike’s witchy Eastwick), her quiet New England town. Ginger is young, but is she really clueless? And what does she want from you, her reader? “Does it seem obvious to you, too, that I required protection? How embarrassing,” says Ginger, describing the way she circled Raquel and Theo like a determined moth, craving his provocative touch and her seductive conversation (“I did not understand so much as absorb, like meat in a marinade”). What makes this fictional debut so intriguing is the way Wolff evokes the dark enchantment of nascent sexuality, its imperative to morally self-destruct. A magic spell relieves its victim of re-sponsibility: That is why “childhood’s fabled innocence” is both a blessing and a curse.—C.M.

'Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness' by Alexandra Fuller

In this sequel to her 2001 memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which her unflattered mum calls the “Awful Book,” Fuller gives a warm yet wry account of her British parents’ arduous life in Africa. Flamboyant Nicola and fearless Tim Fuller embraced the excitement of “land mines on the road, snakes in the pantry,” endured the deaths of three children, lost a farm to squatters during war and dealt with Nicola’s bouts of depression. With searing honesty and in blazingly vibrant prose, Fuller re-creates her mother’s glorified Ken-yan girlhood and visits her forever-wild parents at their Zambian banana and fish farm today. The result is an entirely Awesome Book.—C.J.

'The Summer Without Men' by Siri Hustvedt

As any woman spurned can tell you, rage and self-doubt will make you crazy. Madness befalls Mia Fredrickson, the woman at the center of Hustvedt’s amusing new novel, when her husband leaves her for a busty brunette: “[It] was enough to turn me into a lunatic whose thoughts burst, ricocheted and careened into one another like popcorn kernels in a microwave bag.” Through a series of encounters with her teenage poetry students, among others, Mia astutely examines infidelity as well as the enduring power of love. As she puts it, “Only the most hard-hearted among us have no use for mush or blarney or those old ballads about lost and dead lovers.”—S.S.

'A Year and Six Seconds' by Isabel Gillies

Undoubtedly there are worse things in life than having to set up post-divorce camp in your parents’ apartment, as Gillies discovers in this engaging memoir, a follow-up to 2009’s Happens Every Day. Her observations about single otherhood are sharper now, and she charms while describing her precarious perch on the higher rungs of the Manhattan social ladder (with only $524 in the bank and borrowed shoes for a first date). When love comes her way, Gillies is shrewd enough not to drift into fantasyland: She knows that she’s holding her golden new life together with a mysterious glue made from love, persistence and plain old good luck.—Elaina Richardson

'Paradise Lust' by Brook Wilensky-Lanford

A century’s worth of Eden seekers (people intent on inpointing the biblical garden on a map) supplies the land lust in this smart social history, which covers theories both crackpot and credible. Prompted by her great-uncle’s obsession with the hunt Wilensky-Lanford aims to track the progress of his fellow crusaders—including scholars of religion, irrigation engineers and an intrepid Norwegian explorer—who locate the seedbed of original sin everywhere from the South Pacific to Ohio. The quest for a palpable paradise is a basic human urge, the author says, so Eden will forever tempt us, even if we can’t set our GPS to its coordinates.—Lise Funderburg

'You Are Free' by Danzy Senna

Nothing is harder to tell the truth about than motherhood—but the women who populate these eight emotionally affecting, affable stories take a fine shot at it. Livy attempts to strike the right postpartum balance between too much self-care and its complete absence. Cassie tries to get up the nerve to reject the elite preschool that rejects almost everyone else. And lonely Lara is willing to revise her personal history to accommodate the girl claiming to be her long-lost daughter. Each story surveys the dangerous fault line between parenthood and remaining childless. “And sooner or later all women know this,” says Livy. “You won’t know what it was you gave up until it is too late to recover.”—P.H.

'Nothing Daunted' by Dorothy Wickenden

In 1916, undeterred by the prospect of primitive conditions and the fact that they “knew not the slightest thing about teaching,” two sheltered young Smith graduates lit out for the still-wild West to preside over a one-room schoolhouse in Colorado. In this enthusiastically researched account of her grandmother’s adventures, Wickenden rounds up a cast (with cameos by Harriet Tubman and Isadora Duncan) of rebels and reformers, ranchers and dancers, hardscrabble homesteaders, rapacious rail barons and children who (no joke!) really did slog three miles through the snow to get to school—and captures a moment in time when the country seemed as punky and full of optimism as this dauntless duo.—A.L.

'Adios, Happy Homeland!' by Ana Menendez

A hot-air balloon will do. Ditto a raft, a train, a tunnel under a graveyard, a wing and a prayer. The characters in Menéndez’s marvelous new collection of linked stories—a follow-up to her critically lauded In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd—are desperate to shed the constraints of geography and culture, to break free of the “long ideology of human suffering.” Dreams of flight (whether from a tiny island or from an unruly heart) can be quixotic, but what makes this book so liberating is the way it plays tricks with language and perception, offering glimpses of inner lives that are almost too inventive for words.—C.M.

'America Pacifica' by Anna North

The rich live in mansions, the poor live in slums, elections are marked by fraud, and garbage is filling the sea. Sound familiar? In the writer’s gripping dystopian vision, North America has succumbed to a second ice age. Eighteen-year-old Darcy has grown up on the treacherous island of the title, where jellyfish is a common cuisine, birds are stained with soot and education is a privilege for the lucky (and wealthy) few. She and her mother, Sarah, are close: “She wished her mother were something she could keep in a closed fist, like a coin.” So when Sarah goes missing, Darcy sets off to find her, discovering the truth about the island’s origins and its diabolical dictator. What’s most chilling here is that North’s fantastically imagined fiction seems oddly, disturbingly possible.—C.C.

'Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse' by Suraya Sadeed

For nearly two decades—before, during and after the Taliban’s reign—Sadeed has braved perilous terrain for women in order to bring aid from her U.S. home to her native Afghanistan. Wisecracking beneath her burka, she talks her way into horrific refugee camps, creates a clinic for women (they must skulk in by a secret door) and illegally starts a girls’ school in a windowless basement. This former businesswoman turned full-time activist lives what she fervently believes: that education is more powerful than “the bullet and the bomb.”—C.J.

'A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion' by Robert Hansen

Hansen (Exiles, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has a knack for transmuting history into superb fiction. In his latest, set in 1920s New York, reckless, manipulative bombshell Ruth Snyder falls into a consuming affair with mar-ried hosiery salesman Judd Gray, a natty gent in his early thirties with “flannel-blue eyes” and “walnut-brown hair so wavy it seemed corrugated.” After Ruth pressures Judd to murder her husband, the lovers’ illicit relationship takes a turn for the gruesome. Based on a true story, this unabashedly steamy novel explores the toll of betrayal at its most extreme.— C.C.

'Sugar in My Bowl' Edited by Erica Jong

For her fierce, fearless collection, Jong enlisted 28 stellar women writers (including her daughter, Molly) to muse with her about sex via fiction, nonfiction and graphic essay. Daphne Merkin recalls her lust-hate relationship with the kind of bad boy even a feminist can’t resist; Linda Gray Sexton experiments with erotic asphyxiation; and Jennifer Weiner imagines a woman’s farewell fling as she’s about to lose her breasts to cancer. Sex is “far from obscene,” Jong writes. “It is just a part of life—the part that . . . makes it bloom.” —Meredith Maran

'Bossypants' by Tina Fey

Is there anything that Tina Fey can’t do exceedingly well? Don’t ask; just read her viciously witty, almost absurdly down-to-earth essay collection, Bossypants. —Carmela Ciuraru

'Reading My Father' by Alexandra Styron

Alexandra Styron peers into the complicated mind of literary icon William Styron (Sophie’s Choice)—and recalls a childhood laced with literature—in Reading My Father. —Rebecca Adler Warren

'A Singular Woman' by Janny Scott

Follow Barack Obama’s principled, gutsy mother to Indonesia and beyond in the biography A Singular Woman by Janny Scott. —R.A.W.

'A Year in the Village of Eternity' by Tracey Lawson

The setting is Campodimele, Italy, a hilltop community where the average life expectancy is a whopping 95 years. The secret to this astonishing longevity is most likely genes, exercise and environment, researchers say; but British journalist Lawson also makes a case for diet—fresh, chemical-free fare mostly grown, gathered or hunted by the spry villagers themselves. More Under the Tuscan Sun than Top Chef, this savory mix of memoir and nutritional wisdom includes recipes ranging from basic to curiously impractical. Live snails? Wild boar? Maybe in your next life. —Katherine B. Weissman

'Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams' by Jeni Britton Bauer

Try not to lick the pages of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, by Jeni Britton Bauer, a charming confection of dairy and sorbet desserts in wild flavors (Star Anise with Candied Fennel Seeds, Riesling-Poached Pear, Goat Cheese with Cognac Figs). —R.A.W.

'For Cod and Country' by Barton Seaver

Trawl for a healthier planet with Barton Seaver’s For Cod and Country, a seafood lover’s guide to curing, searing and sautéing sustainably. —R.A.W.

'Plum Gorgeous' by Romney Steele

Fruits that are bright, colorful and downright Plum Gorgeous star as the ingredients in Romney Steele’s delectable ode to orchard fare. —R.A.W.

'A World on Fire' by Amanda Foreman

They lost your luggage. Luckily, you keep your e-reader close! This season’s most fascinating too-big-to-carry-anyway download is A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman (Random House)—an epic historical work that unfolds in spectacular detail across plantations, ballrooms, ships and trenches. Bonus: 21 handy maps for your war room. —R.A.W.

'Chicken Chronicles' by Alice Walker

In The Chicken Chronicles, The Color Purple author Alice Walker bills and coos with her “girls”—that is, her flock of eight backyard fowl (the fine-feathered Gertrude Stein and Agnes of God among them), breathtaking creatures who stir her curiosity, revive her maternal instincts and delight her with the “wonder and spontaneity of Nature.” —R.A.W.

'The Map of Time' by Felix J. Palma

H.G. Wells, Jack the Ripper and a crew of Victorian Londoners convene in The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma (Atria), a keenly imagined, time-tripping historical fantasy from Spain.

'The Lake' by Banana Yoshimoto

Japanese sensation Banana Yoshimoto crafts an alluring love story about a woman who discovers her paramour’s troubled past at a creepy country house in The Lake (Melville House). —R.A.W.

'The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine' by Alina Bronsky

A conniving, comical Mildred Pierce–inspired matriarch narrates The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, an irresistible German import set behind the Iron Curtain. —R.A.W.

'In Spite of Everything' by Susan Gregory Thomas

Mini Excerpt: “Every generation has its life-defining moment. If you want to find out what it was for a member of the Greatest Generation, you ask: ‘Where were you when Hitler invaded France?’ Or ‘Where were you on D-Day?’ If you want to find out what it was for a baby boomer, there are three possible questions: ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ Or ‘Where were you when you heard about Kent State?’ Or ‘Where were you when the Watergate story broke?’ For most of my generation—Generation X—there is only one question: ‘When did your parents get divorced?’ ”

'The Steal' by Rachel Shteir

Mini Excerpt: “Many shoplifters talk about the crime like a love affair. Here is how they sound: Shoplifting punctures despair, at least temporarily. Shoplifters enjoy stealing. The objects mean something to them, but taking them feels dirty. Shoplifting is a spasm or a seizure. The lesson they learn from the crime—yes, I can!—they can apply to other areas of life. Shoplifting gives them courage to take chances.”

'Lola, California' by Edie Meidav

Mini Excerpt: “Rose crossing a square in Spain, could be Valencia or Granada or any of the places where two girls stay the summer after high school, sleeping under rowboats or in flowerbeds, in hostels or pensions with balustrades and mites made venerable and happy by tourists, but it happens to be a less trafficked areaof Barcelona, not far from where Senegalese vendors pray, and Rose is all chrysalis, bruisable and diffident, aware of contours, thrilled by the people she will meet, the ones who will reveal all her possible faces, still hidden in magic invisible cloaksleeves.”


Want more great reads for your vacation? Click here for a slideshow of this summer's best beach books.


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First Published July 12, 2011

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