Picks and Pans Main: Books

updated 04/19/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Lotus Eaters

by Tatjana Soli |

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"The only way to get the picture (you want)," a fellow Vietnam War journalist warns Helen Adams one night, "is to get so close you become part of it." A newbie photographer whose brother was killed in the war, the California-born Adams is an outsider in the jungles where stray beer cans are booby-trapped and boy soldiers carry AK-47s. But within a year she develops a single-minded obsession with the conflict, brushing her teeth with scotch in the field, dousing her leech-circled ankles with iodine and using her camera to shield her face from the guns of Vietnamese soldiers.

The novel is steeped in history: Soli, a writing teacher, cites more than three dozen books in her bibliography. Yet gorgeous sensory details enliven the prose. Sparkling green mountains and paddies with gray water the temperature of blood provide the backdrop for Adams' relationships with a married photographer and an ex-soldier. Both male characters feel cursorily sketched, and Adams' bravery borders irritatingly on carelessness. Yet 35 years after the fall of Saigon, Soli's entrancing debut brings you close enough to feel a part of it.

The Swimming Pool

by Holly LeCraw |

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With her green eyes and Italian accent, Marcella upends the life of every man she loves. Her summer affair with Jed, the son of a former lover, leads to pain as well as pleasure: They satisfy their longing but can't shake off their memories. Jed "did not want to remember, but he couldn't stop," uncoiling a past that links Marcella to infidelity, deceit and even murder. This hazy-hot novel, set on sun-drenched Cape Cod, chills to the bone.

When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead

by Jerry Weintraub |

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This is a guy who can tell a story. And boy, does he have stories to tell. The legendary producer was around for-or created-cultural moments with Elvis and Sinatra, not to mention Brad P. and George C. A nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, Weintraub became a political force and pal of Presidents; the elder Bush, then a senator, got him into a restricted country club. Weintraub exhibits no false modesty-or illusions. "Pretend you don't hear the word 'no,'" he writes. "I have accomplished almost nothing on the first or second or even the third try." It's called chutzpah, and it works.

Something Red

by Jennifer Gilmore |

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As the Cold War ends, the Goldsteins of Washington, D.C., have regrets. Dennis jettisoned his parents' lefty politics for government work; wife Sharon set aside activism for motherhood. Their kids show a knack for protest, suggesting it's a trait that skips a generation-an idea Gilmore bolsters with a well-orchestrated denouement that turns the Goldsteins' world inside out.

The Last Time I Saw You

by Elizabeth Berg |

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As Dorothy, Pete, Mary Alice, Candy and Lester prepare for their 40th high school reunion, each struggles with challenges-death, divorce, cancer and job loss-while coming to terms with the realities of aging. Facing the past and one another, the classmates learn how far they've come since senior year. Berg's latest is a warm, unsentimental look at life way past high school-and the hope some people hold of reliving those glory days.

A Ticket To The Circus

by Norris Church Mailer |

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In this blazingly alive memoir of her 32 years with the late Norman Mailer, sixth wife Norris Church Mailer proves herself every bit as fascinating as her illustrious mate. Her narrative glitters with famous faces and events, from Bob Dylan and Bill Clinton (whom she dated) to the 1975 Ali fight in the Philippines. While Norris sometimes gives Mailer's outrageousness a pass (she claims his misogynist remarks were meant with a twinkle in his eye), she knows her husband, older by 26 years, was no saint (he once left his lovers' letters out for her to find). Yet they were well matched, and though she decked him during squabbles, he had her heart. "I'll never write about you. Nobody would believe it," Norris often told him. You'll be glad she did.


by Irene Nemirovsky |

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These stunning tales, written in France between 1934 and '42, are haunted by the fate of their author, a Paris emigre who died in Auschwitz at age 39. Like her bestselling posthumous novellas Suite Francaise, they possess a breathtaking prescience about the encroaching war. And Nemirovsky's astute renderings of the bourgeoisie-from egotistical husbands and their powdered mistresses to the "set smiles" of an aging mother trying not to be "wounded" by her daughter's beauty-resonate in any era.

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