By Etty Hillesum
Hillesum was a Dutch Jew in World War II. This diary is the only thing I've read that deals with a woman coming into her sexuality in that war. She writes about an affair with her therapist during the early part of the war. Later, in 1942, the Nazis rounded up Dutch Jews, and she was sent to a transit camp near the German border. She was beautiful, and she was offered help escaping the camp, but she chose to stay with her family. She's such an unsung hero in my eyes, and I want to tell her story as a film.
By Cathy Crimmins
This is a memoir about a traumatic brain injury—and about what happens to Crimmins and her marriage when her husband is run over by a speedboat. She writes beautifully about the sometimes baffling information she must absorb. At one point, she explains: "Although the evidence is strictly anecdotal, doctors and therapists have told me that smart, well-educated people often do better after a brain injury. Why? No one knows, exactly, why it's good to be smart if you get hit on the head." Crimmins tries to keep it all going without getting angry, though you can understand her frustrations: There he is, physically capable of getting some milk, but when she says, "Honey, go buy milk," he doesn't come back for two hours.
By Grace Paley
I love short stories; I used to spend a lot of time on the subway in New York, and you can read several stories on a trip uptown. Paley's writing speaks to me. I'll always remember these lines from the story "Wants": "I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. 'Hello, my life,' I said."
In two and a half pages, she gives this character's whole experience. Even the stories' titles are magnificent, like "An Irrevocable Diameter." You think, "What's that about?"
By Dante Alighieri
This story captivated me in my junior year of high school; I remember being so intrigued by Francesca and Paolo—two great lovers in life who had eyes only for each other and ended up in the second circle of hell. The book affected me deeply as a teenager because that's the age when the idea of wanting everything all the time begins. As an adult, you think, "Yeah, loving one man too much probably puts me in circle two. Okay, let me just try to love others and do good in the world."
By Carrie Fisher
Fisher is one of the funniest writers I've ever read. She lets you into the mind of a bipolar personality. There's a wonderful part where the main character stops taking her medication, and she's living in this amazingly happy world. Then you realize she's on a drug binge—she goes to Mexico with some guy she's never met before and ends up in a bathroom somewhere. I found her journey to be riveting, incredibly modern, and never self-pitying.
By Lama Surya Das
About five years ago, I was having a tough time making a big decision, and this stood out on the bookstore shelf. The author, now a Buddhist monk, had worked at a Fifth Avenue law firm during the summer of 1969. The following year, after Kent State, he no longer wanted to be an attorney. He writes, "I knew that I wanted to learn more, not earn more." That hit me like a truck, because we're conditioned to think anyone who walks away from money is crazy. It reminds you of the importance of contributing to the world instead of constantly taking from it.
By Leo Tolstoy
I go back to this novel almost every summer. It's rich in detail and emotion and drama—you get sucked into Anna Karenina's story. It's a tragic fairy tale. The moment when she throws herself on the train tracks, looks up, and sees the train coming, she says, "Where am I? What am I doing? What for?" That moment haunts me—it will haunt me for the rest of my life.