Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Harper, $14). This comedic drama about 20-somethings in 1970s San Francisco was the primary inspiration for my Park Slope novels. Maupin's plotlines can be soapy, but his characters have humanity and his laconic humor pervades.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (Penguin, $16). Though Jaffe's novel follows a group of late-1950s women, its subject matter — elusive men, workplace sex, abortion, depression, and suicide — is shockingly au courant. Whether you read this 1958 book as camp, social commentary on working women, or a snapshot of a lost New York, you won't stop reading.
Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth (Vintage, $15). After an angry reader of Motherland began harassing me by email, text, and phone, a friend suggested I read Zuckerman. Roth's black humor saved me from going on anti-anxiety medication. Nathan Zuckerman is a famous novelist, and wherever he goes people want to engage with him about his novel Carnovsky, mistaking impersonation for confession. Roth's book takes place in the paranoid spring of 1969 but feels especially relevant to our celebrity-obsessed times.
Act One by Moss Hart (St. Martin's, $20). I read this as research for an actress character in Motherland, Melora Leigh, who takes a role in a Broadway play to revive her career. This memoir recounts the legendary writer and director's experiences on 1930s Broadway, but I love it most for the childhood scenes.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Penguin, $16). All of Flaubert's characters are equally wrongheaded in their attempts to escape the prison of bourgeois life. That's what makes the novel remarkable. You must read Lydia Davis's recent translation, whether for your first time through Bovary or your fifth.
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (New Directions, $14). In writing scenes for my character Danny Gottlieb (who goes to L.A. to create a screenplay and loses his mind), I kept returning to West's classic Hollywood grotesques. Day of the Locust is dark, dirty, sexual, and chilling. And each sentence is clear and perfect.