The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison (Free Press, $14). All of the books on this list capture the mannerisms and social rituals of my generation. This novel, about a young woman meeting her estranged aunt, does that brilliantly, offering 90 distinct shades of self-hatred.
The Vermont Plays by Annie Baker (Theatre Communications Group, $19). Annie's my sister, so I can't be objective. But I've never read dialogue so life-like. I have a special fondness for Nocturama, in which a depressed 26-year-old insists he's naturally cool while white, middle-aged liberals argue over whether a woman they saw in a store was black or not.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, $15). At a school where class distinctions are all-important but bewilderingly subtle, a teenage girl strains to understand rich people and boys, tracking both tribes with the same obsessive attention that the protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty brings to al Qaida. Prep hits that sad/funny sweet spot over and over again.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Coffee House, $16). There are people who can write responses to John Ashbery poems that are nearly as strange and beautiful as the poems themselves, and there are people who can write convincing meet-cute scenes. As far as I know, Lerner is the only person who can do both. He's also good at describing the faces people put on when they want to look cool.
Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel (Random House, $14). There are very few novelists who make me laugh out loud. Kunkel is one of them. It's also worth mentioning that until I read this story about a maddeningly fickle 28-year-old WASP, I was convinced it was impossible to write about people my age who weren't poor. Since then, my work's been full of inherited Volvos.
Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis (Harper Perennial, $14). I teach creative writing at a university, and I try to show my students the power of short stories. I read Curtis's "The Sno-Kone Cart" aloud, and somewhere in the last couple pages, two or three kids inevitably start to cry. It's hard for me not to give them A's on that basis alone.
— Benjamin Nugent is the 35-year-old author of American Nerd, a field study. In his debut novel, Good Kids, two teens try to avoid their parents' mistakes by swearing to never cheat in future relationships, a promise they revisit when they're 28.