Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney

In this debut novel, Paris Review editor Gaffney lovingly resurrects Gilded Age New York, following a luckless German immigrant and his gangster-moll girlfriend from the depths of its sewer system to the heights of the Brooklyn Bridges still-unfinished towers. Forget the overreaching jacket copy: Gaffney doesn't have Dickens's touch with character or his gift for comedy. But she compensates with brawny, old-school storytelling, blending fact with fiction to produce a novel as strong and heady as the brew her rakes and roustabouts swill by the pint.

Fat Girl by Judith Moore

Judith Moore ambushes you on the very first page of this memoir, and in short order has lifted you up and broken your heart with a portrait of the artist as a young pariah. Faced with abandonment, emotional isolation, random disdain and wanton cruelty, Moore comforts herself with food. Life as a fat person--which she describes in unflinchingly stark, yet sometimes lyrical and often funny ways--keeps her forever on the outside. By the end of the book, her obesity has become a paradoxical testament to the depth of her humanity.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Walls made her name exposing celebrity secrets. But it turns out that the gossip columnist had her own secret--an absolutely horrific childhood. She outs herself in this unsparing but loving memoir of life with her brilliant, alcoholic father and feckless artist mother. Walls and her three siblings suffered a nomadic upbringing, marked by long stretches of great privation--including regular forays to the Dumpster for food. What saves this book from mind-numbing grimness is the family's extraordinary resilience. You'll root for them.