Tea Leoni's Books That Made a Difference
Photo: G. Gershoff/WireImage.com
Life is too short to read bad books. On the actress's don't-miss list: stories of a girl standing up to her teacher, an immigrant family almost swallowed up by their new country, evil—and the possibility of redemption—lurking in the next cubicle, and a pair of patriots led tragically astray.
I've been reading the classics over the past few years: things I didn't read in high school for one reason or another, or that I read and have no memory of because I was too focused on boys. The decision was probably influenced by my being married to a guy who came thisclose to finishing his PhD in English literature. He has the greatest knowledge of literature of anybody else I'm close to. Over the years, I've noticed a lot of Penguin Classics piling up on the bookshelves. It reminded me that there are works of literature I might want to read before I die. I've had a very good education, but I didn't recognize the gold I was being given then. I'm only partly joking when I say I wish I could go back to Brearley or Sarah Lawrence at 40.

I think you can come to great books too soon. I know I read Moby Dick too young; to me, it was just a story about a whale. I don't know if you can come to a book too late, though I know I'd avoided A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because I thought it was juvenile. I was prepared to read it quickly, just to have it as a notch in my bedpost, but I was stunned by it. There are reasons that they're classics, reasons you will float when you read them. They're not art first—I think they're life first.

— As told to M Healey
'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By Betty Smith

Set in Brooklyn, just before the first World War, this novel is not simply the story of a girl coming of age. It's raw and uncensored in the way it deals with poverty and class. The main character, Francie Nolan, doesn't have much of a childhood, and mostly she accepts her circumstances. But when one of her teachers tells Francie that she's a terrible writer, she rejects it. It's a real gift when you're doing art to understand that what you're doing is right. Something similar happened to me, and I remember being frustrated by the idea that I had to accept that an adult had a better estimation of my talents or my limitations. Francie is only a child—and yet she is certain the teacher is wrong.

'Lipshitz 6, or Two Angry Blondes'
Lipshitz 6, or Two Angry Blondes
By T. Cooper

My mother gave this book to me. She grew up in Amarillo, Texas, where a lot of the story is set. Of course, if anyone from Amarillo makes any waves in the world, everyone from Amarillo is going to know about it. The novel is a fictionalized account of the author's Russian Jewish immigrant family. Starting at the turn of the century, it follows them as they almost get swallowed by America. It's actually two stories that collide, with this line: "That's not the end. This is the end." Suddenly you've jumped to the present, and one descendant is an Eminem imitator in New York. I can't say it's a seamless transition—but I was knocked out by this book.

'A Yellow Raft in Blue Water'
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water
By Michael Dorris

There's something about Michael Dorris's writing that I found shockingly sensitive to the female voice. He tells the story of a single family from the points of view of three women. The book starts with the teenage Rayona. Then you cut to her mother's perspective, and you realize that a child can look at her parent's actions and think, "You were so cruel," but we very rarely experience our parent's interpretation of that same time. My mom and I can do that now. As I'm sitting here, I'm moving my daughter to New York at the exact same age that I was when I moved to New York. Now I can ask my mother, "Why did we move?" As a child, I was given reasons, but they were probably reasons to make it easier, not necessarily the truth. I'm very conscious of wanting to be honest with my daughter about my motives.

'The Exception'
The Exception
By Christian Jungersen

Jungersen brings up questions in this thriller, such as, Where is evil? Is it possible that it resides in all of us? The story follows four women in a seemingly benign office that collects and distributes information on acts of genocide. When two of the women receive terrifying e-mails, the threats are a catalyst. People begin to commit heinous acts of bullying against each other. They also find ways to justify their behavior—and what's so key is that self-deception. You realize at the end of the novel that while we might not necessarily find a way to end genocide, we can possibly wake up and find a solution to our own behavior.

'American Dreamers'
American Dreamers: The Wallaces and Reader's Digest, an Insider's Story
By Peter Canning

I was so taken with this history of the couple who started Reader's Digest and became two of the country's wealthiest individuals. DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace began the company with altruistic and patriotic intentions. They wanted to make knowledge more accessible to people. Eventually, the U.S. government used the magazine—the foreign editions especially—for its own political agenda, pushing propaganda through it. For me, this book is eerily relevant. It's not just some ex-employee talking about the king and queen getting old and how Parliament came in and ruined everything. Canning shows where the Wallaces should be held accountable and how they became so vulnerable. I think this story is a modern American tragedy.
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