Book jacket of 'The Breaks'

Book jacket of 'The Breaks' (August 23, 2011)

During one's school days, summer vacation offers the opportunity for reinvention. Who hasn't fantasized about returning in the fall triumphantly sporting a new look, a new skill, a new attitude? If you don't have three months off for that makeover, try one of these three books on for size. Each features an individual seeking his or her place in the world.

"The Breaks"

by Richard Price

Picador, $16

"The Breaks" may surprise fans of Richard Price's work on "The Wire" and of his gritty recent novels. First published in 1983 and just reissued, "The Breaks" covers several months in the life of wisecracking recent college graduate Peter Keller.

Peter's two best friends are going on to graduate studies, but he, waitlisted at Columbia law school, is returning to Yonkers to live with his stoic father and nervous stepmother. He plows through two miserable jobs as a phone solicitor and a mail sorter before cracking up, spending some time in police custody and moving back to his upstate college town. There, a meeting with "Fat Jack," the dissolute head of the English department, leads to a job teaching freshman composition. Not satisfied with stability, Peter then embarks on a romance with Kim, an aspiring writer who also happens to be the ex-wife of a volatile fellow professor.

Price has an unerring feel for the sometimes stifling rhythms of daily life and the disastrous, often hilarious ways people try to break free of them. Peter is something of a train wreck, but he is an identifiable, ultimately lovable one.

"Beautiful Unbroken"

by Mary Jane Nealon

Graywolf, $15

Mary Jane Nealon grows up in Jersey City dreaming of heroism. When becoming a saint seems unlikely to work out, Nealon sets her sights onnursing.

Her personal life is full of pain: from her childhood "neighborhood of sad stories," to her younger brother's death from cancer and her family's crumbling in its wake, to her true love's devastating car accident. Through this devastation, she finds meaning in tending her patients and in the poetry writing she pursues. "Beautiful Unbroken" follows Nealon from Brooklyn, where she tends two boys who remind her of her brother, to her years crossing the country as a flying nurse, losing herself in partying and trying to forget, back to New York, where she tends more dying young men during the incipient AIDS crisis.

Nealon's training as a poet serves her well in this disturbing but brave memoir. She doesn't shy from the ugly aspects of her profession, but "Beautiful Unbroken" never grows sensational or self-pitying. Rather, Nealon's clear vision and unsentimental compassion are inspiring.

"Plainsong"

by Kazushi Hosaka

Dalkey Archive, $17.95

In 1986, the nameless narrator of Kazushi Hosaka's first novel plans to move into a spacious new apartment with his girlfriend. Then she dumps him. Left alone and without much to do — he doesn't like to read and doesn't own a television — the protagonist takes up gambling on horse races and trying to ingratiate himself with a stray cat. But slowly his apartment becomes a little less roomy.

First, Akira, an experimental filmmaker, asks to crash there for one night. When Akira leaves, his friend Shimada moves in. Eventually, the narrator winds up sharing his apartment with Shimada, Akira and Akira's new girlfriend, Yoko. This makeshift family settles into an amicable routine, until Akira becomes fixated on taking a trip to the beach.

Hosaka's novel unfolds quietly, amplifying the rhythms of daily life until they seem almost surreal. When the group makes it to the beach at last, the result is utterly low-key yet somehow cathartic and touching.