Francine Prose's 6 favorite books
Le Divorce by Diane Johnson (Plume, $15). It's impossible to write a book set in Paris, during any era, without reading Johnson's marvelously incisive and hilarious take on French culture and on how we Americans try to understand it — and just as frequently get it all wrong.
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (NYRB Classics, $16). Gallant was one of the most elegant, original, and precise prose stylists of all time. Her Paris stories go as deeply as any fiction ever has into all the darkest and brightest areas of the human psyche — and the human heart.
Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco (NYRB Classics, $16). Glassco moved to Paris in the 1920s, and his lightly fictionalized memoir captures the mood of the era. With its accounts of wild nights of partying with the famous and the infamous, it helps us imagine what it was like to be young and free in Paris at that time. It's like a much kinder and more generous version of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.
Tales of Chekhov by Anton Chekhov (Ecco, $150). No other writer provides a better lesson in how to portray a character in depth, in how to get under the skin of someone else. All 13 volumes of Chekhov's stories are endlessly inspiring and helpful to today's working writers, especially when the characters we're writing about are very different from ourselves.
Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience by Gitta Sereny (Vintage, $18). One of the things I was dealing with in my novel is the nature of evil. How can an ordinary person do extraordinarily unspeakable things? This fascinating and beautifully written book-length interview with the Kommandant of the Treblinka extermination camp comes as close to answering those questions as anything ever will.
Hitler's Table Talk: 1941–1944 — His Secret Conversations (Enigma, $24). Martin Bormann (and others) wrote down everything Hitler said at meals for years. The result is shatteringly banal and almost impossible to read from start to finish, but when I realized that my novel would include a dinner party with Hitler, I knew that this book would be a useful resource.