By Philip Roth
What struck me about this novel, which is the story of an affair between two people, is the unusual way Roth tells the story—devoid of any description, stripped down to the dialogue alone. At times you aren't clear on who is speaking. His male characters are all so unsympathetic, brutal even, but vivid and charismatic and engaging. I don't necessarily like them, but I feel intimate with them. That's quite an achievement.
By James Salter
A friend gave this book to me, and I was just so struck by how beautifully the sentences were designed. The narrative is meditative and poetic. It seems a very accurate telling of what it is to be married—that is, for a fairly privileged white person to be married. At moments I would just stop, amazed by how elegant Salter's prose is and how carefully he portrayed the inner lives of these people. The characters are estranged from each other, and I think maybe Salter is saying that it's impossible to ever know somebody—that we can't fully connect: As much as we struggle to and want to, it's not entirely possible.
By Ernest Hemingway
Like the Roth novel, this short story contains some of the most exquisite dialogue I've ever read. It's only four pages, covering about 45 minutes, as a couple waits for a train in Spain. You come to realize that they're talking about her having an abortion. Actually, they never speak about it overtly, but their story is just heartbreaking. Again, it's about people who are recognizing the distance between them. It's a very appealing story for an actor because drama exists in what's not spoken.
By Christopher Isherwood
I discovered Christopher Isherwood in college. His writing style is so direct, warm, and inclusive. There's one passage in this book, published in 1964, that has really stayed with me—the description of America. The narrator is a British man teaching at a California college. He and a few colleagues are having a conversation, and an American woman is saying how romantic Mexico is. She's critical of America. The protagonist argues with her, talking about the virtues of the United States. He says that its beauty is in its abstraction. I thought that was an amazing insight—possibly true and compelling at least.
By Lorrie Moore
Moore is completely unsentimental but able to stir enormous feelings in the reader, or, certainly, in me. Her style is so original: The way this book is structured, the narrative is like an anagram. It begins with Benna, a singer, and her neighbor Gerard. The characters in each succeeding chapter have the same names, but they're different people. In one, she's a schoolteacher and he's a graduate student. I've never read a book where the identity is the same but always changing.
By Haruki Murakami
This is a kind of Alice in Wonderland premise: A man is looking for a cat. Murakami describes these banal domestic experiences, but, cumulatively, he spins an outrageous, trippy story. That's a kind of magic—to make the magical seem ordinary and vice versa. It's such a tender story, his search for the cat and, by extension, a life. That one task leads him on a labyrinthine journey.