by Uwem Akpan |

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People PICK



"When they ask you," a Rwandan Tutsi mother warns her daughter shortly before their homeland explodes in violence, "say you're one of them." "Who?" asks the puzzled girl, whose father is Hutu. "Anybody," her mother says. "You just have to."

In the corrupt, war-ravaged Africa of this starkly beautiful debut collection, identity is shifting, never to be trusted—and the key to who lives and who dies. Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest, uses children as his storytellers: a Muslim teen posing as a Christian to escape mob slaughter; a Nairobi street kid whose family scrapes by on his sister's prostitution pay. The narrators move from naïveté to awareness along with the reader: In the most powerful story, which unfolds like a grim fairy tale, a Nigerian boy realizes the feasts his uncle is providing have a sinister purpose—the boy and his sister must be plump before they're sold into slavery. "Fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet," says the author in an interview that ends the book. His people, and the dreamlike horror of the worlds they reveal, are impossible to forget.

by Nina de Gramont |

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Don't let the obscure title (it's from a Shel Silverstein poem, but who'll get that?) or the prep school heroine's name (Skye Butterfield, so Gossip Girl) put you off: Gramont's debut novel is the kind of smart and riveting read that fans of a certain kind of campus drama—think Donna Tartt's The Secret History—will devour. Set at the fictional Esther Percy academy in Massachusetts, it's the story of a doomed friendship between two dangerous girls: Skye, a senator's daughter with charisma and boundary-testing impulses to spare, and the quieter Catherine, a serious equestrian with weaknesses for cocaine and Skye's volatile charms. There's romance, betrayal, a gorgeous scholarship boy and a spot-on rendering of the queasy regret you sometimes feel when friends from separate orbits meet. Grab this one and share it with your teenage daughter.

by Meredith Norton |

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When thirtysomething Meredith Norton got news that she had stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer, one of the most aggressive and lethal forms of the disease, she wanted five minutes alone to "make all of those hideous, agonized faces one makes during a breakdown." Norton's wise, humorous memoir proves that those 300 seconds of self-pity were all she allowed herself. With a light, comic touch she explores the trials of chemotherapy (finding baldness "magnificent"), the difficulties of understanding treatment options and the horrible prospect of leaving a young child behind. Confronted with the possibility of a double mastectomy, Norton muses that she'll "never win any wet T-shirt contests." Her disarming frankness renders the book less a cancer survival guide and more a lovably unfiltered e-mail from a hilarious friend. There has not been a funnier, more honest cancer account in recent memory.

LISA KUDROW The Three-Martini Playdate, by Christie Mellor. The philosophy: You're an adult, they're children; you need adult time. Don't make your world kidcentric.

CAMRYN MANHEIM A Mind at a Time, by Dr. Mel Levine. It's a book about how children learn. It actually helped me understand how I think too.

BLAIR UNDERWOOD The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel. The metaphor is that when you hurt yourself, there's a lot of growth from that.

At 19, Pete Sampras became the youngest-ever U.S. Open champ—and remained relatively unbeatable for the next decade. In his memoir A Champion's Mind, the dad of two, 36, looks back.

YOU WRITE THAT YOU WEREN'T QUITE READY FOR SUCCESS. I was thrown into the cage of lions. Everyone thought I'd be this smooth, slick winner, but I was a deer in headlights. It took a couple of years to feel more comfortable in my skin.

WHY DID YOU RETIRE IN 2003? I was fine physically, but mentally I was cooked. I always played to win—not for money, not for fame. I'd achieved everything I wanted and more, so I had nothing left to prove to myself. It was time to move on.

TO BEING A DAD? Going straight from retirement to fatherhood was a huge adjustment. But I'm able to do things with my sons that my dad didn't have a chance to, and it's priceless.

LIKE TRAINING THEM TO BE TENNIS PROS? They play a little. I have to tell them to keep the ball inside the court. It's tennis, not baseball!