This book is easily the simplest and cleanest meditation on the act of forgiveness I can imagine. It's about a horrific event—the murder of Mr. Ives's son—and how a father's heart is shattered. It's like a Greek tragedy in the way it's constructed: There's a protagonist, his suffering and, finally, the benediction. I was so moved by Hijuelos' writing—how his Mr. Ives is almost taken down by the loss and how, decades later, he's brought back to life through his forgiveness of the killer.
The Americans By Robert Frank
I love photographs; I have a small collection of black and whites, but not a Robert Frank. If you gave me a choice between the Hope diamond and one of his images, I would take the Robert Frank. This is a book of pictures he took in the mid-1950s while traveling across America. I love the one of the men at a funeral in South Carolina, the picture of the man standing in front of the jukebox, the girl in the elevator and the one of the open road. I also go back to the image of a nanny—she's black, very dark-skinned—holding this baby who is so white, and it almost seems as if the baby has an expression of entitlement on his face. Each of Frank's photographs is like a little novella or little movie, and I get so lost in them.
Selected Poems By Mark Strand
I read mostly poetry, and Mark Strand is absolutely my favorite poet. His poems are economical, but they have such weight to them. I carry "Lines for Winter" from this collection in my wallet. It just explodes within me every time I read it; it gets right into my bloodstream. A good poem makes you feel as if you've had a shot of tequila or walked into a freezer. "Lines for Winter," "The Story of Our Lives" and several others in this book do exactly that.
Fugitive Pieces By Anne Michaels
A boy named Jakob is discovered hiding in the mud of an archaeological site in Poland by Athos, a Greek geologist. The child's family had been massacred by the Nazis. The novel follows the pair to Greece, then Toronto. Athos' rescue of Jakob, that one gesture, affects countless lives. To me the book is about the courage it takes to be generous. It's about manifesting your compassion, and how that requires actual bravery.
One Hundred Demons By Lynda Barry
I'd hesitate to call this simply a collection of cartoons, because they're so subtle and sophisticated and humane. Among other things, Barry is able to conjure up the colloquial rhythms of adolescent girls. That was such a tricky time in my life—I was not a happy 12-year-old. Barry is so unflinching with her own memories. There's no romanticizing her younger self as anything other than awkward; she doesn't gloss over the embarrassing incidents in her later life, like a bad boyfriend. She's brought me to tears more than once.
The Country Girls Trilogy By Edna O'Brien
The Irish have a gift for telling dark, rich stories with a sense of compassion, so you don't feel like you're drowning when you read them. O'Brien is one of those writers. Unlike some of her heavier novels, this one has some levity, some sweetness. It follows two Irish girls who move to Dublin, then England. More than anything, it's the tone of this book—the romantic yearning of young girls—that really stayed with me.
An Ocean in Iowa By Peter Hedges
This book is a perfect little jewel. It's about seven-year-old Scotty Ocean and the unraveling of his family as his parents divorce. I was blown away by it partly because one of my best friends wrote it (he also wrote the novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape) and also by how spare, almost Chekhovian the writing is. It's all about the natural cadences of these people, which he captures and which are so hilarious.