You know how some people can make you feel safer simply because they're walking around in the world? Even if you were raised differently or one of you is 15 years older, you feel they understand you completely.

Felicity Huffman is one of those people. She's not only one of the world's greatest actors but also the wisest and most loyal of friends. She once offered me a book when I was struggling in a relationship. It was a way of saying that she, too, had been down this road. That gift showed me that a book can take the place of a conversation—in this case a conversation I don't think I was ready to have and one that she didn't know how to begin.

Book-giving, book-receiving—it can be a powerful exchange. Someone hasn't just picked up some random thing. They went out and thought, This story affected me, and I want you to know about it. You remember that while reading the book, and it becomes part of the fabric of experience you both share.

Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties
By Rainer Maria Rilke

This is the book Felicity gave me. The passage that begins with the following lines is perhaps the most meaningful I've ever read: "You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves...." It's a guide to how I want to be. I want to remember in moments when I'm caught up in the details of not knowing what and when and why and how to do something that I need to go back to the notion of trying to live in the unknown—and that, in fact, is what will lead to the answer.

The Liars' Club
By Mary Karr

Karr survived a terrifying childhood with her sense of humor intact, and her memoir of that time makes my eyes water just thinking about it. She grew up with an emotionally unavailable father and a "nervous" mother. As she writes, "I should explain here that in East Texas parlance the term Nervous applied with equal accuracy to anything from chronic nail-biting to full-blown psychosis." I moved around frequently as a child, and it was a revelation to learn that someone else had lived this kind of life and grew up and hadn't just made peace with her own pain but saw it as a gift.

By Ian McEwan

This novel follows the lives of the Tallis family in England from 1935 to 1999. The three main characters are Briony, a 13-year-old with envy in her heart; her sister, Cecilia; and Robbie, the son of the estate's housekeeper. We see the innocence and beauty of young love corrupted by a single lie—and how those three lives are forever changed. It's a story of forgiveness and absolution, and of how much our own hunger for love can color our morality.

The Dead and the Living
By Sharon Olds

Some people are put off by Olds—the way she explores difficult topics—but I'm interested in learning about those kinds of deep, dark places. I've always been attracted to one poem in particular, called "The Elder Sister." My younger sister, Elizabeth, always seemed like a warrior to me. I know it should be the other way around, since I'm the elder, but it wasn't. And this poem describes the way I see her: "She protected me, not as a mother / protects a child, with love, but as a / hostage protects the one who makes her / escape as I made my escape, with my sister's / body held in front of me."

Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories
By Ann Beattie

A good short story grabs you by the throat, and Beattie writes them like no other. The second story in this collection lives in me always. It's called "Snow," and it's so short—just three pages—that I'm tempted to write it all out so you can see the beauty and weight of it. Instead, I'll give you a taste: "This is a story, told the way you say stories should be told: Somebody grew up, fell in love, and spent the winter with her lover in the country. This, of course, is the barest outline, and futile to discuss. It's as pointless as throwing birdseed on the ground while snow still falls fast. Who expects small things to survive when even the largest get lost? People forget years and remember moments. Seconds and symbols are left to sum things up: the black shroud over the pool. Love, in its shortest form, becomes a word. What I remember about that time is one winter. The snow. Even now, saying 'snow,' my lips move so that they kiss the air."


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