The Measure of Our Success
By Marian Wright Edelman
The background: Edelman is an incredibly accomplished person: She was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar; she worked with Martin Luther King Jr.; and now she leads the Children’s Defense Fund. This is a love letter to her three sons in the form of 25 lessons.
Why she chose it: In the introduction, Edelman discusses her worries that her children were brought up in a too-privileged era. “Giving up and ‘burnout’ were not part of the language of my elders…you did what you had to do and you got up every time you fell down and tried as many times as you had to to get it done right,” she writes. That really hit me—I have such a huge fear of failing. I read the book ten years ago, as a young adult, and I found the lessons inspiring. Now, as a parent, I see them in a whole new way.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
By Nick Flynn
The background: Flynn’s memoir is about growing up in a tumultuous household after his alcoholic father abandoned the family. His dad became homeless, and though they were estranged, their paths did cross, in part because Flynn was working at a homeless shelter his father would occasionally duck into. The book is rough and raw and real. I was so completely on Flynn’s side, wanting him to succeed. I recognized something in that kid—something I see in some of my friends, which is being a product of parents who are unfinished individuals.
Why she chose it: This is one of my favorite books right now, because it is so full of all the stuff of life that can be so messy and painful and disastrous. And yet it’s full of so much grace. Part of the heartbreak is that the book makes you think when you pass a homeless person on the street: “That person is someone’s dad.”
By Anne Michaels
The background: This book was given to me by one of my dearest girlfriends, which is how a lot of my favorite books come to me. It’s about a little boy who survives World War II—how he’s rescued and how he grows up and gets past the tragedy of what he’s been through. It contains unlikely kindnesses of people toward one another, like an older man who hides the mud-covered boy inside his coat and spirits him away, after the child’s family is killed by the Nazis—that really got to me.
Why she chose it: There are beautiful scenes of the boy’s coming of age and, later, his falling in love after his divorce. I’m thinking of one when he’s on a date at a very fancy restaurant and he’s so nervous, he accidentally knocks silverware off the table. He’s mortified. But then the woman, to make him feel better, sweeps all her cutlery off the table. Because this character has been through so much, you are aching for him to be adored like that — and then comes this wonderful line: “I fell in love amid the clattering of spoons.” Michaels’s writing is so poetic. I’ve turned down pages all through the book.
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing
By Melissa Bank
The background: A collection of linked stories, Girls’ Guide follows mischievous and daring Jane through the different relationships she chooses to lose herself in at particular moments in her life.
Why she chose it: This is not some deep, probing, Anna Karenina type of novel—it’s a nice, cozy, girlfriend book. I read it at a time when I was working really hard and felt really young. I was shooting Felicity in Los Angeles, and I did not have a ritual girl group. I was missing that so much. Now, living in New York, I have that, but I used this book to surround myself with all those great smart-aleck, empathetic feminine voices at a time when I needed them.
By Michael Ondaatje
The background: This is just how I like a novel—full of big, sweeping landscapes and delicious details. It starts in northern California, horse country, and it follows two sisters. I don’t want to give too much away, but an event occurs that sends them on separate paths.
Why she chose it: I’m just obsessed with Michael Ondaatje right now. The women in his books have secrets, yes, but the secrets inform who they become. What I love is that his women are not victims of circumstance. They’re courageous; they keep moving forward. He gives them a quiet power, and I like that. The books I’m drawn to are like Ondaatje’s—lyrical and adventurous—and they capture the intricacies of human emotions and relationships.
Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook
By Martha Stewart
Why she chose it: An amazing babysitter named Rachel helped me when my son was a baby. I wasn’t really a cook, and she taught me so much about creating a home. Now I make Martha Stewart’s scones all the time—though I use ginger instead of currants [ click here for the recipe ]. I freeze logs of the dough, and if I have a girlfriend coming to stay, I’ll put some in the oven. They’ll make the whole house smell good.
What didn’t stick: I’m a little more free-form than Martha Stewart—but I love her fastidiousness.