Mating by Norman Rush (Vintage, $17). Rush, who spent time in Botswana with the Peace Corps, used that experience to craft this National Book Award winner about a female anthropologist who treks through the Kalahari Desert and falls for the visionary founder of a secret utopia. Mating is both a brilliant novel of ideas and a stunning story of what happens when love becomes tangled with obsession.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Penguin, $16). A fictional autobiography of an ordinary woman spanning from conception until death. Shields, who died in 2003, wrote from an unapologetically "female" perspective, rendering the experience of being a woman with startling insight and a powerful intellectual breadth.
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (Vintage, $16). I was living in France when this polemical novel was published. Houellebecq's story of two half-brothers raised apart incited defenders and detractors in every French home. It was fascinating to watch a work of literature virtually divide a nation: Houellebecq was either the greatest French novelist since Balzac or a pornographer and a nihilist. While I don't agree with every opinion he expresses, I admire his audacious and unflinching voice.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage, $14). Carver's economy with language and the power of what he doesn't say resonated with me as a reader and, later, as a writer. These masterful stories are essential reading for any aspiring writer of short fiction.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (Picador, $14). Every story in Lorrie Moore's collection is powerful, but if I had to choose a favorite, it would be "People Like That Are the Only People Here." The story of a mother grappling with her infant son's cancer, it takes my breath away every time I read it.
New and Selected Poems: Volume One by Mary Oliver (Beacon, $17). Mary Oliver writes about the natural world with an incredible sense of humanity and grace.
— Molly Ringwald gained fame as a member of Hollywood's 'Brat Pack,' starring in such films as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Her debut novel, When It Happens To You, was just published by HarperCollins