8 Books To Read Over A Long Holiday Weekend

05/21/2015 09:13 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2015

Beware: These addictive reads will keep you turning the pages -- so much so, you might just forget to barbecue.

Girl Underwater
By Claire Kells
304 pages; Dutton

College sophomore and lifelong swimmer Avery Delacorte is heading home for Thanksgiving break when her airplane crashes over the Colorado Rockies. Just as the scene reaches its climax (sorry, we just can't spoil this one), the author tears us away from that and zooms weeks into the future, to the hospital where Avery is now in recovery. The novel continues to alternate between the immediate aftermath of the crash, where the few survivors struggle to find food and shelter, and the crash's later, lingering impact on Avery's life. As such, the suspense lies not in her eventual rescue, but in the much-engrossing psychological and emotional aftermath of making it out alive. "Sometimes I wonder if I really survived anything," Avery thinks from safe inside the hospital walls. A poignant will-they-or-won't-they romance between Avery and Colin, another survivor and fellow member of their swim team, adds just enough heat to qualify this as your first must-read beach book of the summer.

- Julia Pierpont

Paris Red
By Maureen Gibbon
288 pages; W. W. Norton & Company

When we first meet Victorine Meurent, in 1862, she is sketching a storefront in Paris. A man watches from over her shoulder; she feels his gaze. He approaches, takes her pencil and, with a few quick strokes, makes her drawing come to life. The man is Édouard Manet, and this opening scene establishes the dynamic that is to follow between the painter and his muse. The bond they share is at once highly erotic and coolly sophisticated, a love based on shared artistic sympathies. She becomes the inspiration for his famous "Olympia" portrait, while he inspires her to see the world with the eyes of an artist. "Now when I walk down the street I notice different things," she writes. "Because of him." The greatest pleasure in Gibbon's historical novel comes from Victorine's insightful voice as she realizes her full potential, becoming a successful painter in her own right (a biographical fact). More than just a vacation to another time and place, this book is an inspiring tale about a woman who gave deeply in love but never gave herself away. As she herself says, "I always have more."

- Julia Pierpont

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back
By Janice P. Nimura
336 pages; W. W. Norton & Company

Imagine being shipped out of your own country at age 6 -- without a parent -- and denied the chance to decline the so-called opportunity. That's just what happened to a group of Japanese girls, who were sent by their government, in 1871, to establish themselves in America as Westerners. The plan? For them to return a decade later and serve as an example for Japanese women, for whom education was a rare thing, let alone an education abroad. Initially, the girls relied on each other for comfort; when it became apparent that their mutual dependency was hindering their integration, they were separated. For some, the challenge was too great -- two were sent home due to health problems and homesickness -- but three girls remained and were sent to live with American families in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. There, they connected with their host families. The youngest, Ume, whose host mother described her as a "sunbeam from the land of the rising sun," integrated especially well and grew up to attend such colleges as Vassar and Bryn Mawr. Nimura's exhaustively researched historical biography is as immersive as any work of fiction, heart-wrenching in its depiction of these cultural orphans turned pioneers. "They had grown into women with the odd ability to see their native land through foreign eyes," she writes. "They were home, and yet at some deep level they would never cease to be homesick." A book about such trauma may sound hard going, but readers will find themselves wrapped up in the struggles of these young castaways and will ultimately be rewarded by the triumphant story of their return home -- where little Ume would establish her nation's first English school for girls.

- Julia Pierpont

The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro
336 pages; Knopf

Before we meet anyone else in The Buried Giant, Kazu Ishiguro's long-awaited return to the novel, we're introduced to an "I" and a "you." The "I" is the narrator -- one intimately familiar with the mythic, post-Arthurian Britain that's to be the landscape of the tale -- the "you" is us. Or at least the version of us that can believe in the ogres and pixies who will be in attendance along with an aging Sir Gawain and the dragon he's been circling for years. We believe in them not only because Ishiguro is an enchanter, but because we're always believed, raised as we were on fairy tales -- whose presence here feels not like left-field fantasy, but essential truth borne of humanity's deepest wishes and fears.

As Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple at the book's heart, set forth to find their grown son, they're hampered by a heavy mist that holds all of Britain under an amnesic spell. A she-dragon named Querig is producing the gray cloud, and before long the duo is diverted, along with a Saxon warrior and a young boy, onto a journey to slay her. This is a quest in the most traditional sense, and yet when the odyssey is complete, the results are far more modern, more ambiguous -- more Ishiguro -- than tradition would dictate. Was there, after all, a benefit to the mist? Can the country's fragile peace and even Axl and Beatrice's love, survive without it?

Fans of Ishiguro's earlier work will be prepared for his splendidly disconcerting conclusion. As the cloud lifts in the book's final pages and the characters begin recalling past pain and loss and love, we start remembering things we've known all along as well. Namely, that there are at least two reasons we read: to be entertained, and to be shaken to the core. And perhaps a third: that we still after all these years, need someone to sit us down and tell us a fairy tale.

- Rebecca Makkai


The Sellout
By Paul Beatty
304 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Let’s get this out of the way: The Sellout is a work of a genius, a satirical opus on race in 21st-century America. It takes place mostly in a California ghetto called Dickens, once an agrarian community whose founding charter set forth that it would be free of “Chinamen, Spanish of all shades, dialects, and hats. Frenchmen, redheads, city slicker, and unskilled Jews.” The narrator (surname Me and nicknamed the Sellout) is an African-American man who was raised by a race-obsessed father out to unlock the keys to “black liberty." He wasn’t above using his son as a guinea pig, regularly subjecting him to social experiments, including administering electric shock if he failed to come up with the right answers to his random black history quizzes. Me grows up to be a radical-idea-chasing, N-word-dropping, weed-smoking farmer. After L.A. County literally drops Dickens off the map to keep up property values in the affluent areas nearby, Me concocts an outrageous plan to restore it.

Beatty, a provocateur best known for his novel The White Boy Shuffle, here explores racism by taking it to absurd proportions. At one point, Me attends a cabal of black thinkers, among them the creator of a send-up of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom is a "preppy black boy, wearing penny loafers and argyle socks." Its author refers to his work as a "WME, a Weapon of Mass Education," a title that would be as apt for The Sellout, which inventively challenges the tenets of racial equality, exploding and laying bare our biases and ignorance.

- Mitchell Jackson

The Turner House
By Angela Flournoy
352 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

What is most exciting about Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, is that while history is everywhere in it—haunting its characters, embedded in the walls of the titular house and in the crumbling streets of Detroit-the book tingles with immediacy. Flournoy has written an epic that feels deeply personal. Through the Turners–Viola and Francis and their 13 children, all of them strive to leave behind memories of hopelessness and partake of the American dream—she tells the story of the Great Migration. The book is ambitious but never pedantic because Lelah, Cha-Cha, and the others who grew up on Yarrow Street feel so much like living, breathing people. When Lelah—who’s hit bottom at age 41 after losing her job and her apartment (not to mention her pride) to a gambling addiction—sits at a roulette table deliberating whether to place another bet, we feel her anguish and her adrenaline rush. When her lover discovers she is squatting in the now abandoned home where she grew up, we expect both her shame and the liberation confession brings.

As the oldest of the clan, Cha-Cha is the center of gravity, the one everyone depends on. He's thrown off balance by the reappearance of a haint he first saw as a child, which causes him to crash his truck and ultimately rethink his life. The scenes in the office of the therapist he's mandated to see after the accident are poignant and unsettling—they gleam with both the possibility of growth and the risk of never being able to return to the person he once was.

Growing up, Flournoy spent time in her grandparents' Detroit home, where they raised their 13 children. In writing the book, she was inspired by something Zora Neale Hurston once said, "Mouths don't empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing." In the end, it is Flournoy's finely tuned empathy that infuses her characters with a radiant humanity.

-Leigh Haber

Crow Fair
By Tom McGuane
288 pages; Knopf

In 1934, Cole Porter, adapting a Montana poet/engineer’s lyrics, crafted “Don’t Fence Me In.” Thomas McGuane’s dazzling new collection. Crow Fair invokes the grit and determination of Westerners who assert their right to "let me be by myself in the evening breeze/Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees."

McGuane’s scrupulous prose and majestic Big Sky setting thread together these 17 stories, highlighting a cast of characters who struggle to face down misfortune. A former prostitute schemes her way to respectability by marrying a closeted gay man. A troubled grandson takes his blind authoritarian grandmothers on a riverside picnic only to discover a corpse floating downstream.

Now in his 70s, McGuan here continues to burnish his reputation with some of his most accomplished fiction to date.

- Hamilton Cain

The Folded Clock
By Heidi Julavits
304 pages; Knopf

Novelist Heidi Julavits’s best book yet isn’t a work of fiction, but a “journal” written for public consumption. The Folded Clock is a cleverly crafted thoughtfully entertaining series of meditations on personhood and culture inspired by a diary the author started keeping when she was 8.

Young Heidi’s journal was full of a child’s flat assertions of desire’ “I want to have a thin lovely figure...” reads that girlish record of her former self, “popular, lots of friends, no pimples, a nicer nose.” Happily, the 40-something Julavits’s diary is a far more complex and captivating read that contemplates everything from awkward social obligations to materialism, motherhood, and little white lies—even why The Bachelorfranchise has redeeming value.

A fixture of the literary scene, Julavits chronicles art shows and encounters with this or that unnamed writer friend, now and then touching on the competition she feels at times with her writer husband, Ben Marcus. Both overtly and covertly, she raises the questions, "How do we curate our own lives when everything about them may wind up in print?" "Can we ever expect naked truth from a diary, or do we invariably receive a sanitized version?"

Maybe, Julavits's work suggests, the best we can hope for is a deeply mediated honestly -- for words are always equal parts mask and revelation.

- Lydia Millet

  • "Mom & Me & Mom" By Maya Angelou
    The memoir can teach anybody to forgive, let go of a tough past and get along with a hell-on-wheels parent (and we mean anybody.) Maya Angelou's moving, honest portrait of her up and down relationship with Vivian Baxter -- the bold, smart, hard-drinking, pistol-toting woman who left Angelou with her grandmother for most of her childhood but reunited with her during her daughter's adolescence -- is full of wisdom, laughs and blockbuster sentences like, "there are times when no one is right and sometimes among family and children, no one can admit that there is no right, and that maybe at the same time there is no wrong," and, "She liberated me from a society that would have had me think of myself as the lower of the low. She liberated me to life." -- Leigh Newman
  • "Dear Life" By Alice Munro
    Because all those subtle, change-everything moments in Munro's fiction are the same ones we need to take note of in our real lives. With her penetrating new collection, Dear Life, Alice Munro demonstrates once again why she deserves her reputation as a master of short fiction. Set mostly against the sprawling backdrop of rural Canada during and just after World War II, these 14 stories explore with exquisite intimacy the characters' pivotal moments. In "Amundsen," a young teacher working at a tuberculosis sanatorium gets swept up in a brief romance that defines the rest of her life. In "To Reach Japan," an aspiring poet turned housewife plots her escape through her own version of a message in a bottle: a cryptic letter sent to a man she has met only once. Nostalgia permeates the collection; events are often refracted through the lens of imperfect memory. (Phrases such as "I think I can remember" appear frequently.) The last four stories, Munro explains in an epigraph, are emotionally -- if not entirely factually -- autobiographical. Taken together, they form an evocative mini-memoir of Munro's hardscrabble childhood on a farm in Ontario. "This is not a story, only life," declares the protagonist of the title narrative. With the subtlety and complexity of Munro's writing, it's hard to tell the difference. -- Pamela Newton
  • "The Complete Poems, 1927 - 1979" By Elizabeth Bishop
    The poet who reminds us all to "Lose something every day." Because the less time you spend agonizing about the little stuff, the more you have for the big, huge, difficult -- and amazing -- stuff. Once out of print, Bishop's love poems ("Insomnia," "The Shampoo") were originally intended for women, but they now seem universal, and her famed villanelle "One Art" is among the greatest poems on loss ever written. -- Carmela Ciuraru
  • "Bossypants" By Tina Fey
    There's only one essay in the world (also known as "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter" that can explain why your mother was -- and is -- the way she was. And why you are -- and were -- the way you are. And make you wince, laugh and cry all at the same time. -- Leigh Newman
  • "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" By Michael Pollan
    How to eat better, tack a few extra years onto your lifespan and save the planet, all in one paperback. This book -- a look at the megafood industrial complex -- completely changed the way I eat. It shattered me! I'm not going to say that it made my life easier -- it made my life tremendously more difficult -- but it's been worth it. -- Samantha Bee
  • "Personal History" By Katharine Graham
    The woman who proves you can survive the death of a spouse, take over a national newspaper and confront the corruption of the president of the United States. In other words: You can do anything. With grace. In her memoir, Graham not only tells her story -- of a sheltered childhood, years of happy marriage before her husband's mental illness led him to suicide, her decision to lead The Washington Post -- but also gives an insider's take on key moments in 20th-century American politics, like Watergate and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers. "Katharine Graham was a one-of-a-kind American character," says Williams. "But because she operated in what is so often described as a provincial small Southern city in a company town, she wasn't as well known as she probably should have been. Her story is fascinating, and it makes me angry when I hear her described as a female Lou Grant. That's an insult to the gender, to Mrs. Graham -- and to Lou Grant." -- Brian Williams
  • "Salvage the Bones" By Jesmyn Ward
    The novel that helps you remember all those sweeping, real-life tragedies on the television news -- long after the cameras have moved on to other stories. Esch Batiste is the only female in the Pit, a hardscrabble patch of bayou country she has shared with her father and three brothers since their mother died in childbirth. "Sometimes I think [Daddy] forgets that I am a girl," she muses. But 14-year-old Esch is obviously on the cusp of womanhood; she's pregnant by Manny, a neighbor. As Hurricane Katrina gathers strength in the Gulf of Mexico, Esch's besieged, down-on-its-luck family veers toward disaster. Daddy, who is rarely around, and even more rarely sober, struggles to prepare for the storm, which the others insist will never arrive. Randall, the eldest, jumps and shoots and sweats for a basketball scholarship that hangs tantalizingly close. And Skeetah pins his dreams on his beloved China, a killer pit bull whose pups he hopes will bring cash. In the world of Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA), brutality is the way to success, and tenderness is found only in memories, which throb like the "phantom pain" Esch imagines Daddy feeling after losing three fingers in an accident. If Ward's prose is occasionally overripe, the novel's hugeness of heart and fierceness of family grip and hold on like Skeetah's pit bull. -- Ellen Feldman
  • "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" By Cheryl Strayed
    The wise, totally non-judgmental best friend who fits in your purse. While writing her best-selling memoir--and the first Oprah's Book Club 2.0 selection--Wild, author Cheryl Strayed penned an advice column for the literary website The Rumpus. There, she worked anonymously, using the pen name Sugar, replying to letters from readers suffering everything from loveless marriages to abusive, drug-addicted brothers to disfiguring illnesses. The result: intimate, in-depth essays that not only took the letter writer's life into account but also Strayed's. Collected in a book, they make for riveting, emotionally charged reading (translation: be prepared to bawl) that leaves you significantly wiser for the experience. To a livid woman whose husband cheated on her with her employee, she says, "Acceptance asks only that you embrace what's true." To a woman who suffers a late miscarriage, she says, "Don't listen to those people who suggest you should be over your daughter's death by now. ... They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died." She then shares, "I know because I've lived on a few planets that aren't Planet Earth myself." Later, she reveals stories about her own struggles with sexual abuse, divorce and marital infidelity (all of which create a much larger backstory for a reading of Wild). One of the most moving anecdotes in the book is a letter that a 22-year-old reader asks Strayed to write to her younger self: "One hot afternoon during the era in which you've gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are, when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She'll offer you one of the balloons, but you won't take it because you believe you no longer have the right to such tiny beautiful things. You're wrong. You do." And like most of the pronouncements in this collection, the subject of those last few sentences can -- and should -- be changed to "we." As in, we all have the right to such tiny beautiful things -- both the purple balloon and the compassionate book it inspired. -- Leigh Newman
  • "State of Wonder" By Ann Patchett
    In this fictional world, there is no biological clock; and that is worth considering in this very real life, if only to examine: How much pressure do you feel to have a child? And where is it coming from? Ann Patchett's new tragicomedy, State of Wonder (Harper), is perfect holiday family book-club fodder -- no children or dogs die, no long-term marriages break up, and just about everybody finds an idea or two worth discussing by the fire (for example, healthcare, politics and international travel). She dares to send women into decidedly masculine territory -- violence and corruption in the jungle -- but with a 21st-century twist. Here the quest is not for military might but for marketplace dominance: An American pharmaceutical company hopes to develop "the equivalent of Lost Horizon for American ovaries" to prolong fertility in aging women. Plucked from her placid Minnesota lab, Marina Singh is ordered to the Amazon to find her former mentor, doctor-turned-researcher Annick Swenson, who discovered the potential elixir but has since gone rogue (think Linda Hunt in Marlon Brando mode). The scenes of Marina languishing in Manaus, Brazil, waiting for the elusive Dr. Swenson, offer tropical comedy filled with torpid heat, lost luggage and colorful locals. Then comes the inevitable trip up the river to a native village far from civilization where Dr. Swenson is "the uncontested kingpin," who challenges Marina, and readers, to consider the unintended consequences of choosing whether to disturb the world around us or to let it go on "as if you had never arrived." The large canvas of sweeping moral issues, both personal and global, comes to life through careful attention to details, however seemingly mundane -- from ill-fitting shoes and mosquito bites to a woman tenderly braiding another woman's hair. Ultimately Marina learns to put aside her predisposition to quantify everything with scientific data, especially where affairs of the heart are concerned. "In this life we love who we love," Patchett writes. "There were some stories in which facts were very nearly irrelevant." -- Liza Nelson and Leigh Newman
  • "Lit" By Mary Karr
    Raw, honest reflections for every woman about when a little too much drinking turns into way, way too much. In the letter to her son that opens Mary Karr's irresistible memoir Lit, chronicling a decade of motherhood, alcoholism, and a long, skeptical slog toward faith, she writes, "Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am." With trademark wit, precision, and unfailing courage, Karr recounts her aspiring years, between the day her school principal warned her that "any girl aiming to become a poet was doomed to become ... no more than a common prostitute" and the day, decades later, when her larger-than-life mother would be "born into the ziplock baggie of ash my sister sent me...with the frank message Mom ½, written in laundry pen." Isolated by motherhood, and losing badly her battle with the bottle, Karr takes advice where she can get it: from Henry James, who said, "Be kind, be kind, be kind"; from a halfway-house schizophrenic, who tells her to "go quietly and shine"; from the young doctor who, after Karr's breakdown, likens going to God to breaking up "with the guy who's beating the crap out of you before you can scan the room and find the nice guy who's got a crush on you." And though her first prayers are full of doubt, embarrassment, and hesitation -- "Help me to feel better so I can believe in you, you subtle bastard" -- she eventually surrenders to the idea that "I was made ... not to prove myself worthy but to refine the worth I'm formed from, acknowledge it, own it, spend it on others." -- Pam Houston
  • "The House of Mirth" By Edith Wharton
    For help -- and understanding -- during those days when you realize that you just aren't going to be able to do what other people want you to do. Lily Bart is beautiful and wellborn but without a dowry in the rigid New York society of the early 20th century. She knows that her only way to rise in this milieu is to marry for money, but she sabotages her chances. Caught between her disgust with selling herself on the marriage market and her inability to declare herself to a man she really trusts, she drifts along, becoming ever more unmarriageable. What makes this novel so moving is the way Lily never quite grasps her situation and thus cannot solve it. Her feminism is on the edge of her consciousness but never really guides her life. That lack of clarity becomes Lily's tragedy. -- Erica Jong
  • "Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings" By Stephen Taylor
    For when you need to slow down time -- and re-see the golden in a floating leaf. Some books show you how to laugh, some show you how to think, but, every once in a while, one will show you how to live. The exquisite Oak: One Tree, Three Years, Fifty Paintings follows the story of artist Stephen Taylor, who decided to paint the same oak tree in the English countryside every day for three years. The titles of his ensuing works reveal the detail with which he pursued his vision: Oak with Crows, Oak After Snow, Oak at Night in Winter, Oak in Early Spring. There are no abstract oaks or evocative splashes of ink meant to suggest an oak. The trees are realistic, some with an almost photographic precision -- revealing the larger point. As the oak changes by the month or hour, the surrounding environment changes. Barley fields are cut down and rise again, jets stream by through the sky, blue tits forage in the leaves, and damselflies swarm below the branches. A singular plant becomes a totem for the passage of time and seasons -- and you, as the viewer -- begin to change too, becoming more observant and aware of the tiny yet enormous natural transformations that take place each day and minute. Seeing, in the truest sense, is the lesson here, one that's taught with such elegance that you'll be bewitched into stopping and contemplating the birch or maple in your own yard that's serving -- as T.S. Eliot once described trees --as "the still point of the turning world." -- Leigh Newman
  • "Song of Solomon" By Toni Morrison
    Everybody needs to believe, at least for a few seconds, that they can fly. It is a novel expressing with passion, tenderness, and a magnificence of language the mysterious primal essence of family bond and conflict, the feelings and experience of all people wanting, and striving to be alive. Featured in Oprah's Book Club 1996
  • "The Fault in Our Stars" By John Green
    Because we all need to feel first love again; even if we know the horrible sob-fest to come at the end. Sixteen-year-old Hazel faces terminal cancer with humor and pluck. But it isn't until she meets Augustus in a support group that she understands how to love or live fully. -- Abbe Wright
  • "A New Earth" By Eckhart Tolle
    How to finally silence that bossy, critical, guilt-infused, ego-driven, totally imaginary voice in your head. This is one of the most important subjects and presented by one of the most important books of our time, A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose. I don't think there's anything more important than awakening and also knowing what your purpose is. -- Oprah Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2008
  • "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" By Carson McCullers
    Because there may come a time when you think you're alone in this world, and this quiet, masterful novel will remind you that you are not. I love this book! I had heard about this book for years and then my dear friend Julia Roberts did an interview in O, The Oprah Magazine and she listed this as one of her favorite books of all times. The book I love so much -- recommended to me by Julia -- is The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. It's a great, great read and not hard at all. -- Oprah Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2004
  • "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" By Susan Cain
    Proof that -- hurray! -- you don't actually have to make 50 new friends at cocktail parties. This compelling nonfiction work celebrates the contributions of reserved, cerebral types.
  • "The Portrait of A Lady" By Henry James
    A reminder that you just can't marry the person you want to be at 40. To arrive at that person, you have to do the work yourself, starting at age 20. In this masterful novel, spirited, unconventional young American Isabel Archer journeys to Europe to find freedom. What she discovers is a fortune -- and all the complexities of having the means to do exactly what you want to in life, but not the direction, support or understanding.
  • "The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition)" By Betty Friedan
    The bible of the 21st-Century woman. To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's iconic feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, W.W. Norton is releasing a commemorative edition, with a new introduction by The New York Times columnist Gail Collins and an afterword by best-selling author Anna Quindlen. O asked Arianna Huffington, president and editor in chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, to share what the book means to her. "The Feminine Mystique forever changed the conversation as well as the way women view themselves. If you've never read it, read it now and reflect on what our mothers and grandmothers were feeling at the time. It's a great moment to celebrate this milestone work, which fundamentally altered the course of women's lives." -- Arianna Huffington
  • "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" By Sheryl Sandberg
    The sequel to that bible. Sheryl Sandberg -- chief operating officer of Facebook and one of Time's "100 Most Influential People in the World" -- writes her manifesto on the ways that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers and the need for them to "sit at the table." -- Leigh Newman
  • "The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson" By Emily Dickinson
    We all need to know that "Hope is the thing with feathers." She wrote almost 1,800 poems, but few were published in her lifetime. She rarely left her room, much less her father's house; locals regarded her as an eccentric. Yet Dickinson's verse grappled with big issues -- love and death and solitude -- and her passion is nearly unparalleled.
  • "Great Expectations" By Charles Dickens
    About those loves and longings dating back to childhood that you still might be keeping alive? You can -- and should -- let them go. Narrated by a middle-aged Pip, Great Expectations can be read on many levels -- as a morality play of a young boy's coming of age and his unexpected rise from the lower to the leisure class, or as an ironic commentary and social critique on how money affects everyone around it. It can also be enjoyed as a suspense-filled mystery complete with secrets, shady characters, thieves and murderers of all shapes and sizes. Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2010
  • "Say You're One of Them" By Uwem Akpan
    Stories that help you remember what childhood feels like -- in all its sadness, joy, observations and complexities. First-time author Uwem Apkan writes each story through the eyes of children and masterfully both captures the innocence and the horror of the unimaginable events these children witness. -- Oprah Featured in Oprah's Book Club 2009
  • "Blue Nights" By Joan Didion
    The memoir that helps with the difficulties of forgiving...(gulp) yourself. Blue Nights does what memoirs can do best: illuminate a crucial portion -- and not the entirety -- of a human life. In this case, prose master Joan Didion focuses on her relationship with her daughter, Quintana Roo, who she adopted in the late 1960s. Quintana grew up in the rarefied world of Malibu and movie-making. Despite the advantages -- the closets full of Liberty lawn dresses, the bassinet from Saks -- she struggled with the discovery of her biological parents, grappling with mental issues known collectively as "borderline personality," and using alcohol as a way to cope. Her struggle to recover from brain surgery, was covered in Didion's previous book The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir that examined the extraordinary and excruciating loss that Didion suffered when her husband died and Quintana was hospitalized for many months. Blue Nights picks up a few years later after Quintana too has died. The lens of the story is less jaw-dropping in terms of fast-moving, tidal-wave events -- and that is its power. The lens of Blue Nights is less extraordinary, less jaw-dropping in terms of circumstance -- and that is its power. -- Leigh Newman
  • "Swimming Studies" By Leanne Shapton
    So you did not win the gold medal in the Olympics -- or receive the Nobel Prize or make it to the final round of "So You Think You Can Dance" -- by age 20 or 30 or 40. You will have another destiny; one even more rewarding. Growing up in Canada, Leanne Shapton was one of a handful of teenagers hand-picked to become world-class swimmers. She made 5 a.m. practices, traveled to distant meets and developed an obsession with time due to stop watches that gave her "the ability to make still lifes out of tenths of seconds." And then came the moment at age 14, when it occurs to her "gently, in a quiet flash: I'm not going to go to the Olympics. I will not be going. Not me." Rather that quit the team, she continues to train, and the thoughtful, exquisitely written book that results is ostensibly about her lifelong relationship to the sport, complete with photos of her various bathing suits and meditations on the difference between swimming (i.e., competitive swimming) and bathing (i.e., swimming for fun). The story underneath all this, however, concerns a troubling question: What do we do with ourselves when we're good (or even very good) at something we love, but not great? Shapton finds her way, meeting her husband and using her "feel" for water as a painter. She even includes some haunting, cobalt blue illustrations of pools she frequents as an adult, as well as a color guide to different swimming smells, such as "coach: fresh laundry, Windbreaker nylon, Mennen Speed Stick, Magic Marker, and bologna." These extra visual elements dazzle, but the specifics of this world and her insightful take on her own far-from-ordinary life are what makes any reader wonder if Shapton's gold medal might have already been won -- in writing. -- Leigh Newman
  • "Daring Greatly" By Brené Brown, PhD
    Need to get over shame? Read it. Need to open up to others? Read it. Need to laugh a little in the process? Read it. Okay, just read it. You'll feel better. Based on 12 years of research, Brené Brown argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather a courageous act -- one necessary for living "a wholehearted life." -- Leigh Newman
  • "Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, 5th Edition" By Susan M. Love, MD, and Karen Lindsey
    The latest research. The straightest talk. The body part about which we all need to be experts. This 752-page tome tells you everything you need to know about your mammary glands, including new research about the ways that local environments influence the odds of your getting breast cancer. -- Leigh Newman
  • "A Long Way Gone" By Ishmael Beah
    On your toughest, no-good, horrible day, this book will make you grateful for something we all take for granted -- peace. This is the story of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone who now lives in the States. He's gone through these incredibly harrowing experiences, but he's also inflicted terrible suffering on others. I think that he will probably spend the rest of his life atoning for what he did. We're so protected in our little bubble, and we get to be concerned about the cast of Dancing with the Stars. I feel as if the universe has been sending me messages, including a book like this, to help me get perspective and make me feel grateful for the life I have. -- Samantha Bee
  • "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" By Julia Child
    You need to learn how to make beef Bourguignonne. If only because you will have a big, bubbling pot of it, which will make celebrating crucial events very easy -- ones that you might otherwise be tempted to dismiss as "too much work" For example: your 39th birthday. The cookbook so profound, it changed a culture, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is Julia Child's first masterpiece. From Poulet au Porto to Boeuf Bourguignonne to Lobster Thermidor, Julia Child makes even the most complex recipe seem easy enough to try. Pair it with the Julie Powell-inspired movie, Julie and Julia, and you have a perfectly timeless Mother's Day gift. -- Melissa Hellstern
  • "NW" By Zadie Smith
    For those days when you feel as if your brain is dying, due to the never-ending mundane: a novelist who thinks as insightfully as she writes. NW, Zadie Smith's inventive and compassionate novel of aspiration, identity, and social hierarchy, takes its name from the part of London in which it is set -- North West -- a multiethnic, multiracial, mixed-income community where drug addicts wander the streets and wealthy entrepreneurs live among tradesmen. Sometimes using unconventional techniques -- she includes computer-generated walking directions and the text of headstones -- Smith tells the story of three natives of the area: best friends Natalie and Leah, and Felix, who at first seems to have no connection to the others. Each is determined to rise above a hardscrabble childhood. Felix, a former production assistant, links himself to a dissolute, aristocratic lover he meets on a film set. Natalie becomes a lawyer and marries a well-born banker. Leah attends a prestigious university in Scotland but returns home as an underpaid worker at a charity, suffering both guilt for being more successful than her parents and insecurity about not fitting in with an affluent crowd. When Natalie invites her to dinner parties, Leah and her husband "have no gift for anecdote" and "look down at their plates and cut their food with great care" while the others chat and laugh. Meanwhile Natalie -- so set on remaking herself, she's discarded her given name, Keisha -- lives a double life, engaging in sexual encounters with anonymous partners found on the Internet. Natalie's world collides with Felix's in a violent incident that forces her to peer "over into the pit that separates people who have known intolerable pain from people who haven't." There to comfort her is Leah, who understands the cost and complexity of her choices, as well as the gains. -- Leigh Newman
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