I nominated this novel for our book club after a conversation with a friend, David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos. I asked him if he had any suggestions for us, and he said, "My favorite book is Madame Bovary." I figured if it's good enough for David Chase, it's good enough for us. We had such an intense discussion that night. Some people, especially the guys, couldn't stand Emma Bovary. They thought she was despicable; I think she's completely compelling. She's unbelievably ambitious with absolutely no outlet for her pent-up frustration. And then there's the guy who writes the Dear John letter, dripping water on it to make it seem as if he'd been crying. These people are so wicked, but in the end, so human.
The Poisonwood Bible By Barbara Kingsolver
This was another book club selection, and I thought it was an incredibly satisfying novel. It touched on all of life's important issues—politics, race, death, religion, the differences between men and women. It also makes you question whether it's okay to impose your ideas on other people, even if it's for their supposed good. The father of this family—a Christian missionary—was so driven by his zeal to spread the word of God that he could see no other point of view. Ultimately, he goes mad—unable to help even himself.
All Quiet on the Western Front By Erich Maria Remarque
This was the first book that really shook me up. I grew up in a very small rural community, and I think I read it when I was in seventh grade. Set in the trenches of World War I, it shows war in all its tragic gruesomeness—and the bonds a group of young men make in the middle of horrific battles.
Notes fromUnderground By Fyodor Dostoevsky
Academics were never my strong point. But after I transferred from the University of Nebraska at Kearney to Northwestern, I buckled down, and one of the courses I took was on the works of Dostoevsky. We read Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground. I was struck by the depth of each of his characters—maybe because I had decided to become an actor. They are so unbelievably rich and complex—you pity them, you loathe them, you feel for them. And the first line of Notes is an absolute classic: "I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man." Such a great way to start an exploration of the dark side of the human condition.
The Grapes of Wrath By John Steinbeck
I get tears just thinking about this book. It starts out in Oklahoma; I'm from Nebraska. People suffer, leave their roots, and undergo extreme hardships. It's the story of so many families from the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck makes such a statement about society, kindness and tolerance during times of great hardship. I love the scene where the Joad family is on their way to California. They have next to nothing themselves, but they offer food and money to two travelers who are utterly destitute. The idea of extending comfort to those you know and those you don't resonates with me still.
The Liars' Club By Mary Karr
Karr is the Lucinda Williams of contemporary writers: poetic, soulful, country, street, passionate. Her mother read a lot and her father was a blue-collar, hard-working man. He and his buddies made up the Liars' Club, a group that hung out at the American Legion or in the back room of Fisher's Bait Shop. Karr's dedication to her parents is beautiful: "For Charlie Marie Moore Karr and J.P. Karr, who taught me to love books and stories, respectively." Some people find it impossible to forgive or understand their parents. Despite Karr's difficult childhood, you can tell from this memoir that she loved her parents dearly—and she has come up with a loving tribute to them.