NOVEL

By Nick Hornby
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Despondent after serving a prison sentence that resulted from an affair with an underage girl, a talk show host sits on a ledge atop a London building on New Year's Eve, preparing to jump. A middle-aged woman comes up behind him and taps him on the shoulder. She intends to dive off the same ledge and wants to know if he's going to be long.

That comic set piece—four people wind up on top of the building with the same mission but get distracted by a quarrel over who has the best reason to end it all—is a brilliant opening to another irresistible comic novel by the author of About a Boy. Writing a life-affirming novel about suicide sounds like a sucker bet, but Hornby finds so many laughs in the darkness you'll wonder why no one thought of his setup before.

Hornby's portrayal of the distressed quartet—Martin, the TV host; Maureen, a Catholic spinster; Jess, a teen drama queen; and JJ, a soulful rock musician—shows off his enormous powers of empathy and his gift for wise, barbed comments about how people think. And his humor is so cutting that you can cuddle up with his (ultimately) warm view of humanity and not hate yourself in the morning. Three of his books sprouted four movies, and Johnny Depp has signed up as a producer to bring this one to the screen. The film will have to be perfection itself to top this sparkling book.

NOVEL

By Linda Ellerbee

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An award-winning TV journalist and breast cancer survivor, Linda Ellerbee has written an exuberant memoir about the people she met and the food she shared with them during more than 40 years of traipsing across the globe as an avid traveler. Ellerbee finds inspiration both in the hopeful Afghan children with whom she dined during a post-9/11 trip to Kabul and in an empathetic 8-year-old who helped her serve sandwiches at a Baltimore shelter. Most of all, she writes about the many ways that food can bring people together: She revitalized a strained marriage after a sensual lunch and formed a friendship with Malcolm Forbes after enjoying caviar on his yacht. Throughout, Ellerbee is poignant and perceptive but never pretentious. Take Big Bites will have readers sending their compliments to the chef.

MEMOIRBy Lisa Grunwald

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So, what does make a woman happy? Sally Farber should know: She has a loving husband, two daughters and a contract to write a book about, yes, happiness. But then, unexpectedly, Sally finds herself drawn to a sexy artist. In appealingly straightforward prose, Grunwald explores the meaning of happiness, drawing inspiration from poets and pop icons to probe Sally's itch to have an affair. Readers may find themselves considering what underlies their own happiness—and what they would risk to find more.

NOVEL

By Sean Wilsey

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In this sprawling memoir, Wilsey documents his life as the off-spring of rich, supremely screwed-up San Francisco parents, a '70s-era golden couple who split when the author was just 9 years old. Both were movers in San Francisco—his father, Alfred, was a multimillionaire entrepreneur and his mother, Pat, a society columnist. Caught between an oblivious and inscrutable father and a loving yet mercurial mother, Wilsey (now an editor-at-large at McSweeney's quarterly) developed the ability to see them not just as his parents but as real people with real flaws. He offers a sensitive evocation of his manic-depressive mother—who tried to talk him into committing suicide with her—and a scathing portrait of his stepmother Dede, an heiress and socialite who seemed to loathe him. Touching, if occasionally maudlin and often repetitive, Wilsey's is still a book worth reading.

MEMOIRFOREIGN BABES IN BEIJING by Rachel DeWoskin An intelligent, funny memoir about five years in the fast lane in Beijing, where a producer "discovered" Columbia grad DeWoskin at a party and cast her as a scheming seductress in a popular soap opera.

1776 by David McCullough A superb, fast-paced history of a key year in the Revolutionary War; Pulitzer winner McCullough distills the human drama and makes palpable the gritty realities of battle.

AGAINST DEPRESSION by Peter D. Kramer A psychiatrist and author of Listening to Prozac, Kramer presents a powerful argument against romanticizing (and thus tolerating) depression as "artistic" or "soulful" rather than treating it as a disease.

WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS? by Benilde Little The bestselling author of snappy novels with African-American heroines (Good Hair) writes another diverting story about race, identity and family ties.

EVERYTHING BAD TOPIC IS GOOD FOR YOU This examination of pop culture by social critic Johnson contends that multidimensional TV shows, video games and other media give the mind a better workout than naysayers may believe.

HOW HAS TV BECOME MORE STIMULATING? A host of shows tell hypercomplex stories that stretch over multiple seasons. The Sopranos, for example, has many, many characters and many intersecting plotlines and does very little hand-holding. You really have to focus to understand what's happening.

IS THE SAME TRUE FOR VIDEO GAMES? As technology advances, more of it becomes participatory; video games force you to look at the variables, assess the information and make a decision. That's a huge part of what it means to be smart.

HOW DOES THE INTERNET HONE YOUR MIND? When you click on a link, you do that because something has piqued your interest and you want to see more. And it allows people to express their thoughts—there are more than 10 million blogs out there.

WHAT'S YOUR ADVICE FOR PARENTS? We should have a balanced media diet: If a child spends nine hours a day on video games, then make him read a book.

Cars come with instructions, so why can't people? In YOU: The Owner's Manual, coauthor Dr. Mehmet Oz explains how to stay in tune.

WHY A USER'S GUIDE? The average person has a pent-up desire to know more about their body, but it hasn't been explained in a way that's accessible. We wanted to make [the book] cool and hip and fun.

WHAT WILL THE YOUTH-OBSESSED WANT TO KNOW?

High blood pressure causes wrinkles; it's the biggest ager—not cholesterol or stress. And most sun damage occurs before age 18 and is irreversible.

GOT ANY GOOD NEWS? It's a fallacy that you only use 10 percent of your brain. You use all of it, just 10 percent at a time. And real chocolate is actually good for you. It's high in [antioxidants], which keep blood vessels young.

  • Contributors:
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Beth Perry,
  • Jill Smolowe,
  • Bill Goldstein.