By James Agee
This is about what happens after the unexpected death of a father. Certainly, the novel had resonance for me because I lost my father at an early age and this book is told from the vantage point of the young son. Dealing with grief is difficult, especially for a child. There are peaks and valleys—grief has a life of its own—and Agee does a good job of exploring that territory. The book opens with a scene of people—men with wives and children—watering their lawns while cicadas are buzzing. There's a poetry to the writing in that it describes events that really cannot be described.
By Graham Greene
I read this novel in college when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. It's set in Vietnam in the 1950s, before heavy United States involvement. It features Fowler, this hard-bitten, opium-smoking British reporter who's world-weary and washed-up, and Pyle, an American secret agent who pretends to be an aid worker. Pyle is filled with simplistic notions about what needs to be done in Southeast Asia, and in trying to do good, he ends up causing deaths. At the time, I saw things in black-and-white like Pyle, but part of the book's lesson is to allow yourself, especially as a reporter, to go into a story with an open mind and heart.
By Augusten Burroughs
Dry is a memoir of Burroughs's struggle with alcoholism. He goes into rehab with this notion that it's going to be glamorous and he's going to see celebrities. Instead he finds that the hospital is horrifically depressing. Yet he continues with the program. Burroughs writes in a way that is both hilariously funny and extraordinarily moving. I think I'm solely responsible for driving this book to the best-seller list, because I gave out so many copies of it.
By Wyatt Cooper
My father [the book's author] died when I was 10, and in a sense this book became a letter to me from him. It's about the family he had as a child in Mississippi and also about our own—my mother, my brother, and me. The last sentence of it is important to me; we actually put it on his tombstone: "We must go rejoicing in the blessings of this world, chief of which is the mystery, the magic, the majesty, and the miracle that is life." One of the horrible things about the death of a parent when you're a child is that there comes a time when you can't remember what he looked or smelled like or the way he talked or walked. I feel lucky to have a book that is all those things.
By Gloria Vanderbilt
I always thought the worst thing in the world would be to hear your parents talk about their sex lives. It turns out, the worst is learning that your parents' sex lives were more interesting than your own. This is my mother's latest memoir, looking back at the loves in her life, both long lasting and one night. At 17 she went on dates with Howard Hughes and Errol Flynn, and later met up with Marlon Brando. I feel boring by comparison, but I think it's cool that my mom has reached this age, 81, and has a sense of humor about her life. She has the perspective to say, "This, too, shall pass," and that the troubles we fret about now won't seem so important in a few years.
Edited by Kathy Eldon
I met Dan Eldon briefly when I was starting out as a reporter and he as a photographer. In 1993 he was beaten and killed by a mob in Somalia. Afterward, his mother assembled from his journals this beautifully printed book of collages. Dan would write and paint over his own photographs. The title is from a phrase he used in the pages, and it is a notion that's been helpful to me.