Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (Harper Perennial, $16). I love novels like this that create their own microcosm of the world. In an unnamed South American country, guests at a fancy birthday party are kidnapped by terrorists. The outcome is unexpected and magical. I reread this novel whenever I want to remind myself about the possibilities of literature.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Picador, $15). Still my favorite of her books. My dog-eared and worn-out copy has a few pages loose. Robinson's descriptions are so gorgeous, the voice in the book so distinct, that she turns isolated, rural Idaho and the experience of childhood into longed-for destinations.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House, $16). Mitchell's fifth novel takes place in 1799 on a small island in Nagasaki Harbor where Westerners are confined, as they are barred from Edo-era Japan. Newly arrived young clerk Jacob is a "goodie set among baddies" in this tale of the clash of civilizations and forbidden love. What's not to love?
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (Grove/Atlantic, $15). A hidden gem that won the 1987 Booker Prize but is seldom mentioned today. Claudia Hampton is a 76-year-old English author we meet when she's on her deathbed mentally composing a "history of the world." Lively brings to life World War II–era Egypt, the setting at the heart of the novel, with unforgettable detail. The book is about history and memory, and it is much more profound than its romantic cover suggests.
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid (Mariner, $16). A beautiful memoir by the gifted late journalist about rebuilding his family's ancestral home in southern Lebanon. Shadid gave us a personal story of the human costs of war. I'd urge anyone who wants to understand the Middle East beyond the headlines to read it.
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, $16). Kushner's novel about Americans in pre-revolutionary Cuba is especially interesting now as the country seems on the verge of opening up again. It is also that perfect and rare combination: the literary page-turner.