If you’re anything like me, you think summer is made for reading. But nothing is more frustrating than taking a much talked-about book on vacation only to realize it’s underwhelming (or just plain awful) and you’re stuck with nothing.

Anybody can browse a bestseller list, but just because a book is a bestseller doesn’t mean it’s the right book for you. How do you find the hits without wasting time on the misses?

Enter the summer reading guide. This compact, user-friendly guide whittles the overwhelming array of readerly options down to 5 titles each in 7 genres, with the tastes of MMD readers in mind. I’ve done the curation so you don’t have to take a dud novel on vacation—or to the backyard.

Every book here has earned its spot, and I’ve personally read it—often more than once. I can vouch for them, and answer any questions you have.

NEW RELEASES

This year’s new release guidelines are different from those in the 2012 reading guide. Last year, I recommended new releases I was looking forward to reading but hadn’t read (because they hadn’t been released yet!) Since half of those turned out to be duds, I changed the rules for this year: I’ve read–and enthusiastically recommend–the new releases below.
Carry On, Warrior

Carry On, Warrior

Like the rest of the world, I first encountered Glennon Melton after her blog post “Don’t Carpe Diem” went viral. It appears in this essay collection, alongside other popular posts from Momastery and a good bit of new material. Funny, poignant, and brave.

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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

An MMD Summer Reading Guide pick. Cooked documents the middle link of the food chain: what happens to our food after it comes out of the ground, but before it enters our bellies. The journalistic narrative is elegantly divided into four parts, each exploring a different classical element: fire, water, air, and earth. It gets a little science-y in places, yet it remains thoughtful, wise, and (unexpectedly) funny. Add Audible narration for $12.99.

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Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

This story-driven business book teaches you how to make better decisions, drawing on case studies on everything from whether or not to fire an employee to whether or not to undergo a risky bone marrow transplant. The Heath brothers are whip-smart and really funny, making Decisive a million times better than your typical business book. Everyone will find a useful takeaway.

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What It Is Is Beautiful: Honest Poems for Mothers of Small Children

What It Is Is Beautiful: Honest Poems for Mothers of Small Children

I knew from the first poem (“Welcome to Facebook”) that these 19 short poems were just my speed--and stage of life. The narrative threads remind me of David Whyte. This collection can be read (and re-read) all in a sitting or one poem at a time, giving you plenty to reflect on while you’re lounging by the pool. Poignant, sweet, and funny.

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Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

You’ve heard the buzz; maybe you’ve read the reviews. What can I say? Read it. Using equal parts memoir, instruction guide, and manifesto, Sandberg tells her story of how she built a career that made it worth staying in the workplace, and she encourages other women to do the same. A timely read, for women and men.

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BESTSELLERS

These books have all hit the bestseller list in the past year, for good reason. They’re really good, but not too demanding for poolside reading.

Bossypants

Bossypants

Author:

This easy reading memoir is part comedy, part auto-biography. Fey covers a lot of ground here: from her Pennsylvania childhood to her awkward college years, her crappy job at the YMCA to the big leagues of SNL. Filled with funny and fascinating anecdotes, like what a photo shoot is really like, and how she finally nailed Sarah Palin’s precise lip color shade. Fast and fun.

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Happier at Home

Happier at Home

I've been meaning to re-read this one since I made my 2013 goals last year. Rubin reminds me it's worth making the effort to do the little things--especially in my home—because they really do make a difference.

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Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Author:

Cain hooks you with a great story on page 1 and doesn’t let up till the elegant ending. By sharing personal stories and fascinating research, Cain showcases introverts’ unique strengths--and how those strengths are often squelched in a culture that’s embraced the Extrovert Ideal. Quiet is smart, eye-opening, and utterly enjoyable, for introverts and extroverts alike.

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Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected

Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected

Author:

Life changed in an instant for Kelle Hampton when her second child was unexpectedly born with Down Syndrome. In Bloom, she relates the grief–and the joy–that little Nella brought her. Hampton’s insights into life, love, friendship, and the beauty in the unexpected will make you laugh and make you cry--often on the same page.

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Daring Greatly

Daring Greatly

Author:

This is the Brené Brown book best suited to the beach, and since you need to read at least one Brené Brown book in your lifetime, go ahead and throw it in your swim bag. Brown is a researcher and a storyteller: while she’s educating you about vulnerability and courage, you’ll find yourself thinking she’d make a great girlfriend. Funny, insightful, and wise.

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THOUGHTFUL AND FUNNY MEMOIRS

Summer’s a great time to get lost in a good story. These wonderful memoirs give you the opportunity to get lost in someone else’s story.

You Learn by Living

You Learn by Living

Roosevelt penned this book--part memoir, part advice manual--in 1960, when she was 76 years old. It’s striking how fresh and wise her insight seems today, over fifty years later. Roosevelt offers an interesting perspective on history, unique insights into her life (which contained a surprising amount of personal tragedy), and a good bit of wisdom you might just apply to your own life.

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A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter

Deresiewicz had zero interest in reading Jane Austen—he thought it was chick-lit, fluffy and boring. But then as a young grad student he was forced to read Emma for class, and actually reading Austen shattered his preconceptions. A Jane Austen Education is part memoir, part literary criticism: Deresiewicz reflects on the path of his own life through each of Jane Austen’s novels in turn. It works.

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My Life in France

My Life in France

Author:

Child didn’t stumble into the world of French cooking until she was 36, when she moved to Paris with her husband Paul, who worked for the U.S. Foreign Service. It was 1948. Since she had no job and nothing else to do, she began shopping the French markets, learning the style, and taking cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu. Julia’s tales will entertain, inspire, and make you laugh out loud.

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Surprised By Oxford

Surprised By Oxford

Author:

Weber's memoir of how she converted to faith while studying at Oxford is sincere and smart. Weber clearly intended the book to be as much Christian apologetics as memoir, and the writing often has an academic, rather than a personal, feel. I’m afraid the dialogue suffers a bit for it, but it’s definitely worth a go if spiritual memoirs are your cup of tea.

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BOOKS ON READING AND WRITING

For all you writerly types, these books will teach you something new, make you laugh out loud, and inspire you to sit down and get to work.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Author:

If you count yourself among Truss’s target audience--the tiny minority of people “who love punctuation and don’t like to see it mucked about with”--this book will make you laugh until you cry. Her chapter on the semicolon (I’m a fan) is my very favorite. Tons of fun for grammar geeks.

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The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life

The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life

This slim volume (114 pages) is well worth spending an afternoon on. Memoir readers everywhere will thank Roach for her no-nonsense rules for writing your own story: you can write about anything, but just because something happens, doesn’t make it interesting. Have no fear: Roach will help you make it interesting. Entertaining and dead-practical: if you're a writer, you'll learn to write better; readers will learn to better appreciate the genre—and know how to spot a good specimen when they see it.

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Author:

If you’re crazy (or compulsive) about reading, you’ll recognize yourself on the pages of this essay collection. Perhaps you’ve experienced the pain/pleasure of merging libraries with a new spouse (“Marrying Libraries”), or utilize questionable bookmarking strategies (“Never Do That to a Book”), or self-identify as a compulsive proofreader (“Insert a Carat”--my favorite!). Smart, interesting, and laugh-out-loud funny.

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The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

An instant classic. This is THE BOOK on the subject; everything else is derivative. Highly recommended.

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The Getaway Car

The Getaway Car

Author:

Patchett realized she wanted to be a writer about the same time she learned to ride a tricycle. In this mini-memoir, Patchett sketches a path from childhood all the way to the completion of her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. Stops along the way include her college years (complete with fabulous teachers), a failed marriage, the Iowa writing program, and a waitressing stint at TGIFriday’s. You’ll come away inspired to sit down at your keyboard and write.

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CLASSICS THAT AREN'T DREARY

Feeling guilty because you’ve never read the famous books that everyone assumes you covered in high school? Don’t put it off any longer: throw one of these into your beach bag for fun–and not out of a sense of duty–this summer.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

Fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby has built a mansion on Long Island Sound for the sole purpose of wooing and winning his lost love Daisy Buchanan, who married another man while Gatsby was serving overseas. This classic American novel captures the Jazz Age in all its decadence and excess, while weaving a wistful story of love and loss. Even if you've seen the movie you need to read the book. More info →
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Emma

Emma

Author:

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Emma is the most suited for the beach. Emma is different from the others. It's engaging and witty, as all Jane Austen is. But it's bright and fresh and thoroughly modern, and Emma–despite her flaws–is so winning and relatable I find myself cheering her on more than any other Austen heroine. (Yes, even more than Lizzie.) If you’ve never read Austen, Emma is a great place to start.

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Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Author:
“Happy families are all alike;” begins this classic novel, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” If you’ve never read Anna Karenina, summer’s a great time to find out why William Faulkner called this novel “the best ever written.” Whether or not you agree, you’ll be glad you read it. More info →
Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre

Just because it’s assigned reading in high school doesn’t mean this isn’t a great book. This groundbreaking classic is a Gothic romance, mystery, and psychological thriller all rolled into one. You’ll be kicking yourself for not reading it decades sooner.

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CRIMES AND CAPERS

If you who love a good whodunit, this section is for you. Take your pick from true crime, psychological thriller, undercover story, or classic heist.

The Likeness

The Likeness

Author:

In the second of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, detective Cassie Maddux is pulled off her current beat and sent to investigate a murder. When she arrives at the scene, she finds the victim looks just like her, and—even more creepy—she was using an alias that Cassie used in a previous case. The victim was a student, and her boss talks her into trying to crack the case by impersonating her, explaining to her friends that she survived the attempted murder. The victim lived with four other students in a strangely intimate, isolated setting, and as Cassie gets to know them, liking them almost in spite of herself, her boundaries—and loyalties—begin to blur. A taut psychological thriller that keeps you guessing till the end.

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Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures

Wittman is a retired FBI agent and founder of its Art Crimes Team, and his day-in-the-life stories read like a spy thriller. His tale of going undercover to track down stolen masterpieces and bust art thieves depicts a seedy world that’s quite different from the polite cat-and-mouse games of The Thomas Crown Affair.

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Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

The Whiskey Robber is Attilla Ambrus, a gentleman thief who couldn’t quite make ends meet, so he turned to robbing banks to supplement his income in 1990s Hungary, all while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest. His brazen crime spree goes on for years, which would be unbelievable if he weren’t up against a police team that’s almost too incompetent to be true.

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Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History

Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History

This is a real-life Ocean’s 11 tale of a 2003 robbery in Antwerp, Belgium, when thieves broke into a supposedly airtight vault and made off with 108 million dollars of loot. The crime was flawless, but the getaway was clumsy, and real-life diamond experts Campbell and Selby were called in to track down the thieves in a real-life worldwide goose chase.

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The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery

Crichton departs from his usual routine with this true story of a game-changing robbery. “It is difficult,” Crichton says in his introduction, “to understand the extent to which the train robbery of 1855 shocked the sensibilities of Victorian England.” Crichton unpacks how the colorful cast of robbers very nearly pulled off the crime of the century and what it meant to 19th century London in this fast-paced account.

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EASY-READING NOVELS

On hot summer days, sometimes you just want a compelling story that’s light, fun, and fast. These novels deliver.
What Alice Forgot

What Alice Forgot

This novel had me pinned to the couch for two days (or it might have been just one). It reads like the breeziest chick lit, but has a surprising depth that makes me love it even more.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Author:

Semple cut her teeth writing for Mad About You and Arrested Development, and that snarky tone is all over this screwball satire. Bernadette Fox was once a cutting edge architect whose work earned her a MacArthur genius grant, but after her daughter is born, she quits, and moves to Seattle with her Microsoft rock star husband, slowing sinking into a town—and a life—she loathes. The format is (appropriately) a little wacky: Bernadette tells her side of the story, sure, but emails, school documents, police reports, and even an emergency room bill clue us in to what's happening. Eventually we figure out where Bernadette escaped to—and why. This feels similar to Gone Girl, but this easy read is lighter, fresher, and a lot more fun.

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

I’ll bet you weren’t assigned this breezy Cinderella-ish story set in 1930s Britain back in English class. When a placement agency sends unemployed Miss Pettigrew to the wrong address, she spends the day of her life with a glamorous nightclub singer, extricating her hour by hour from one scrape after another. Miss Pettigrew is light, charming and utterly delightful.

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Get Lucky

Get Lucky

An MMD Summer Reading Guide pick. After forwarding an inappropriate email to the whole company, Katherine gets fired, moves back to her hometown in disgrace, and starts her life over. This short and easy read has a familiar arc: girl in a mess, girl sees the light, girl finds happiness, yet its themes of sisterhood, forgiveness, and redemption make it worth your while. Recommended reading for Brené Brown fans. Add Audible narration for $4.49.

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GORGEOUS NOVELS

These thoughtful novels are slower-paced: they have some sweep and some heft to them. They’re linked by their gradually unfolding stories and wistful tone. Read them slowly: relax and enjoy.

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility

Author:

This gorgeous novel can almost be categorized as literary fiction, which too many readers dismiss as inaccessible. Don't make that mistake. This Gatsby-esque novel pulls several shocking plot twists, and I definitely didn’t see that ending coming.

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Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow

Author:

Jayber Crow returns to his native Port William, Kentucky after the 1937 flood to become the town’s barber. There he learns about the deep meaning of community, the discipline of place, and what it truly means to love. This is a gorgeous novel.

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Gilead

Gilead

Robinson’s story of the dying Iowa minister John Ames is one of the most beautiful books you’ll ever read, containing some of the most beautiful sentences ever put to paper. Read it. Read it slow. Wistful, reflective, and wise, this is a book you can read over and over again.

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Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited

Author:

I came to this classic expecting a dry read, but was swept up in this epic coming-of-age story set in Britain between the world wars. I’ve read it ten times since then, entranced by the story of the Flyte family’s unraveling–along with the rest of Britain’s aristocracy–and by its themes of love, loss, and grace. Recommended reading for Downton Abbey fans.

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KID LIT

These picks from the young adult and children’s shelves are for all the grown-ups (like me) who can’t bear to leave those books behind. Kids and teens will enjoy these titles, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy them, too.

The Kid from Tomkinsville

The Kid from Tomkinsville

Author:

In this classic sports story, teenager Roy Tucker is called up from his Connecticut hometown to help the Brooklyn Dodgers out of a slump. A baseball story for the ages (and thought to be an influence on Bernard Malamud’s The Natural).

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The Wednesday Wars

The Wednesday Wars

Author:

This wonderful work of historical fiction revolves around middle school drama, baseball, and the Vietnam War. You may enjoy sharing this one with the kid in your life (if they’re 10 or so or older). Fans of E. L. Konigsburg will love this funny and poignant book.

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The Search for Delicious

The Search for Delicious

From the author of Tuck Everlasting. Twelve-year-old Gaylen sets off to poll the kingdom about which food should stand for “delicious” in the new dictionary, but his simple quest soon reveals civil war is brewing. This is a sweet tale of a boy, his father-figure, a mermaid, and a dictionary, full of magic and mystery. Age 8 and up.

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When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me

Author:

Stead's Newbery-winning book is wrapped around an old one: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which just happens to be the favorite of 6th grader Miranda Sinclair. Miranda’s life is pretty normal, until things begin to unravel. I loved the setting of late 1970s Manhattan; Miranda’s life looks so different from the lives of today’s kids. A clever tale of friendship, mystery, and time travel.

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The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars

Author:

The title of this YA hit riffs Shakespeare: wholly appropriate for this story of teenage star-crossed lovers (and cancer patients). 16-year-old narrator Hazel is smart, funny, and sincere, and she tells a great story. Quirky, charming, heartbreaking.

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MEMOIR/COOKBOOK MASHUPS

These books cleverly combine two of my favorite genres: cookbook and memoir. Any (or all) of these books would make a terrific choice for any book-loving foodie.Nerdy NonfictionFor all you intellectual types–and you know who you are–these compelling nonfiction reads weave together story with tales of science, publishing, technology and the Oxford English Dictionary. Take your pick: you can’t go wrong with these.

A Homemade Life

A Homemade Life

After her father died, Molly Wizenburg didn’t know what to do with herself. So she went to Paris, and later, she started a blog. No spoilers here, so let’s just say I especially loved hearing about how the internet introduced the author to new, life-changing relationships. This memoir made me laugh, cry, check airfare to Paris, and curse my low carb diet. Completely and utterly charming, accompanied by tasty recipes.

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Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life Of A Critic In Disguise

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life Of A Critic In Disguise

Author:

When Ruth Reichl takes the plum job of New York Times food critic, she’s determined to let ordinary diners know what the city’s great restaurants are really like. What's so hard about that? But she soon discovers that the Times food critic is no ordinary diner: her headshot adorns the wall of every kitchen in the city so the staff can spot her—and wow her. Not you. So Reichl goes undercover, enlisting the help of an old theater friend to become a sultry blond, a gregarious redhead, and a tweedy brunette, each with her own backstory. Her mission: to experience the city's great restaurants as just another diner. A fascinating read for any foodie, or student of human nature.

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The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks

While shopping one night, Le Cordon Bleu grad Flinn bumps into a woman whose cart is filled with hyper-processed food. They strike up a conversation, and it turns out the woman simply can’t cook. Following this grocery store epiphany, Flinn collects 9 volunteers--all non-cooks--for weekly cooking lessons, and The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is born. Flinn’s belief in the power of home cooking is contagious, and her foundational (and fantastic) recipes might just change the way you cook.

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The Main Dish

The Main Dish

Michael Ruhlman has written more than a dozen books on cooking and has worked with an impressive list of chefs (among them Thomas Keller, Michael Symon, Eric Ripert). Ruhlman knew since he was a kid that he wanted to write for a living, but he never intended to be a food writer. In this Kindle single (10,000 words/35 pages, and just $2), Ruhlman shares the improbable story of how he found his calling. Remember, he’s friends with Bourdain--this one’s briefly crude at two or three places.

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Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes

Imagine the best of the Food Network, with a lot more girl talk mixed in. Niequist's food writing will make your mouth water, but this book isn't just about the food. Her recipes are vehicles—to conversation, community, and all good things that happen when people gather around the table. Bread and Wine contains some great-looking recipes (Green Well salad, Michigan blueberry crisp, magical white bean soup) that will inspire you to get cooking. The short chapters make this perfect summer reading. Just clear your calendar for that dinner party you'll want to throw when you're finished with it.

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