This book, about a boy named Vernon who's accused of being involved in a Columbine-style massacre at his school, is completely unexpected. Vernon is extremely foulmouthed but in a really delightful way. You may come to different conclusions about what he should do next—running away to Mexico seems like a bad idea—but Pierre has created such a vivid and expressive voice for Vernon that you feel the injustices he suffers acutely and you begin to understand his skewed outlook and the choices he makes.
Marching Powder By Rusty Young and Thomas McFadden
This is the story of Thomas McFadden, a drug smuggler who gets caught in Bolivia and spends four years and eight months in San Pedro Prison in La Paz. It's an Alice-through-the-looking-glass story, because the prison is a microcosm of a city: It has stores, restaurants, real estate deals (you have to buy your own cell, for instance). In the late nineties, tourists could visit the facility and stay the night. Everything that happens outside the four walls of San Pedro takes place inside, yet the consequences are much more grave and much more brutal than in the outside world. I first heard about the book at a party. A guy walking by with a tray of hors d'oeuvres said, "Hey, have you read Marching Powder? You should get involved—they're making it into a movie. It's at Paramount." I never saw him again, but we're producing the movie now.
If He Hollers Let Him Go By Chester Himes
Set in Los Angeles during World War II, this is an extremely harrowing book. It describes the oppression of racism through its effect on the main character, a worker at the shipyards. It's the story of a man who is utterly at the mercy of his environment—and of how his rage at that fact eats at him. Reading the novel is such a visceral experience. I could feel this man's anger seething through him, especially at the end when he's accused of rape by a white woman, who is lying, and yet has no way to clear his name. I've never read a book that could better make you understand what it feels like to be subjugated.
Miles: The Autobiography By Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe
There are many biographies about Miles Davis's life, and there's always a certain amount of controversy that swirls around them, largely because Miles could be a very guarded and very contradictory person—sometimes purposefully contradictory. I know some of his family members, and even they say that they don't know everything that went down. But if you have any interest in Miles Davis, and I have great interest in Miles Davis, this is a terrific book. What strikes me is Miles's earliest memory—the "whoosh" of the blue flame of a gas stove coming to life: "I saw that flame and felt…fear, real fear, for the first time in my life…. The fear I had was almost like an invitation, a challenge to go forward into something I knew nothing about. That's where I think my personal philosophy of life and my commitment to everything started, with that moment."
The Kite Runner By Khaled Hosseini
I know this novel was a book-club darling, but I heard about it from a friend who was going to produce it as a film. It's an epic story, starting with two boys growing up in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion. There's an annual kite-running contest, and one year Amir, the son of a wealthy man, follows Hassan, the son of the family servant, as he retrieves their kite. Hassan is attacked, and Amir's shame at not helping his friend leads to a single act that follows him his entire life. There are moments in this book where I gasped—scenes of brutality and surprise that just chilled me.