Choosing a favorite book was an impossible assignment. There's simply no way to take a lifetime of reading great books and single out a handful as the most influential in my life. So I've picked one, The Return of the Prodigal Son, that had a profound effect on me, and that I believe will be equally meaningful to others.

It was given to me by a friend in 1994 after I had experienced some tragic and painful losses—my father, my mother-in-law and our dear friend Vince Foster all died. I was reading a lot of Scripture and theology and other books of inspiration at the time. This book struck a responsive chord, because the story is such a moving and constructive parable about what matters in life. The Reverend Henri J.M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest, analyzes the story of the prodigal son as told by Jesus in the New Testament. Nouwen offers the perspectives of the father and of his sons, the one who returns home after squandering his fortune and the dutiful older son who never left. One sentence hit me like a lightning bolt: "The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy."

I had never thought of gratitude as a habit or discipline before, and I discovered that it was immensely helpful to do so. When I found myself in a difficult situation, I began to make a mental list of all that I was grateful for: being alive and healthy for another day, loving and being loved by family and friends, and experiencing the awesome privilege of working on behalf of my country. By consciously reminding myself of my blessings, I could move from pessimism to optimism, from grief to hopefulness.

Nouwen's book contains universal, timeless lessons for people of all religions, backgrounds and cultures. It really is about how our heavenly Father, God, loves us despite our shortcomings and failings. For me it was a call to the discipline of gratitude and also to forgiveness. And I certainly have had plenty of occasions to use both. I would encourage everyone to read it, particularly if they are going through difficult times.

Little Women
By Louisa May Alcott

Like many women of my generation who read this novel growing up, I really felt like I lived in Jo's family. This book was one of the first literary explorations of how women balance the demands of their daily lives, from raising families to pursuing outside goals. The book was written more than a century ago, but its message resonates today.

The Poisonwood Bible
By Barbara Kingsolver

This is the story of an American missionary who moves his family to the Congo at the end of Belgian rule. It's one of the most powerful books I've read about the evil consequences of patriarchal oppression, be it personal, cultural or political. The story is movingly told through the voices of four sisters and their mother. It reminded me that every woman faces unique challenges and choices, and that all too often women find themselves trapped by their circumstances.

The Color Purple
By Alice Walker

Alice Walker tackles some of American society's most vexing issues—race, gender and violence—through a memorable protagonist named Celie. The story of her growing up as a victim of abuse and her ongoing journey of self-discovery is a brutally honest assessment of human nature at its best and worst.

The Clan of the Cave Bear
By Jean M. Auel

I've been interested for a long time in archeology and anthropology, and this novel about life in prehistoric times is a rich blend of imagination and information about everything from plants that were used for medicine to the rituals and taboos of Neanderthal man. It is also about Ayla, a little girl who is orphaned when her parents are killed in an earthquake. Maybe because I'm a mother, I was very moved by the story of her survival and growing up.

Wild Swans
By Jung Chang

Chang traces the lives of three generations of women born in China during the 20th century. Set against the historical backdrop of imperialist China, the rise of Communism and, finally, Mao's cultural revolution, Wild Swans is an inspiring tale of women who survived every kind of hardship, deprivation and political upheaval with their humanity intact.

West with the Night
By Beryl Markham

Talk about inspiring! I can't get over the amount of daring, courage, determination and self-confidence it took to accomplish what Beryl Markham did in 1936 when she became the first person to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic Ocean. This is a beautifully written life story of one of the greatest woman adventurers of all time, from her growing up in sub-Saharan Africa to her exploits as a pilot.

The Joy Luck Club
By Amy Tan

This novel opened my eyes, not only to the distinct and special traditions of the Chinese-American culture but also to the ways in which immigrant women of different generations adapted and adjusted to life in this country.


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