It was hard not to fill this list with books by James Wilcox. He writes about the South I know: the complicated, intelligent, educated, integrated, contemporary South. This novel centers on two friends, Emily and Clara, who leave Louisiana to come to New York. One gives up her dream and settles into a complacent marriage; the other continues to pursue her goals but suffers enormous adversity. They drift apart, then come back together in a way that still gives me goose bumps. One of the best parts of the book is when Emily's husband realizes "the truth is sexual, passionate, messy. It is the very opposite of infallible; it is vulnerable." That is James Wilcox. He is sexy and passionate and messy.
The Locusts Have No King By Dawn Powell
Set in the 1940s, Powell's novel follows a young, reclusive writer who starts an affair with a famous playwright. He is swept into the literary world, but he somehow remains on the outside looking in. Powell's writing is bitter and funny, and very frank. My favorite quote from her is her description of this book: "One must cling to whatever remnants of love, friendship, or hope above and beyond reason that one has. For the enemy is all around ready to snatch it."
Emerson Among the Eccentrics By Carlos Baker
I'd read Emerson's essays, and I bought this book because I wanted to know more about this man who wrote so much about life, death, love. Baker is illuminating: At times Emerson was a little…snarky. Judgmental of his friends. Hard and difficult. Then he'd be an incredible husband and father and an amazing friend to Thoreau, who was a weirdo but brilliant. The most moving part is after the death of Emerson's son. Here is a man who has words for everything. Words, words, words—his life is words—but he is without them when his son dies.
History: A Novel By Elsa Morante
I read this book 13 years ago, and it still haunts me. It's a novel about a 37-year-old woman living near Rome during World War II, and it brought home the horrors of war to me for the first time. It shows how war affects everyday people with no food, no information, no connections—nothing to hold on to. The main character is a half-Jewish widow with a feckless older son. She's raped by a soldier and gives birth to an extraordinary child—Giuseppe. The book is her struggle to stay alive during the war with this magical little boy. The gravity of it will forever travel with you—I promise.
The Complete Poem By Anne Sexton
When you're in college, you go either to Plath or to Sexton. A friend and I would read Sexton for hours. I would always wonder, How does this middle-aged woman understand me? All of this angst? One poem I always go back to is "Praying to Big Jack." It's for her godchild, 6-year-old Ruthie, who has a brain tumor. Big Jack is God, and Sexton writes, "Banish Ruth… / and you banish all the world." It destroys me. That's the power she has over me. Stumbling on a writer when you're young can change the way you think and feel. Anne Sexton has informed my acting in ways I don't always realize. She put me in touch with an emotional life at a young age. She brought things to the surface—my own fears and rants. I feel as though I'm always playing Anne Sexton in one form or another—in Pieces of April, The Station Agent, my Six Feet Under character.