When my fellow reader and Internet-friend Heather Froehlich asked me about my personal reading list, I started thinking about the best books I read this year. When I had a list of maybe seven, something pretty cool happened: I noticed they were all by women. Once I started thinking, an awful lot more came to me. Even cooler is that a lot of these are new books, by young women.
I’m not entirely sure why, but it turns out that I read a lot of really excellent, really diverse, really awesome books by women this year. It certainly has something to do with the Internet — Nicole Cliffe of The Toast, the books writers at The Hairpin, and Emily Gould and Ruth Curry of Emily Books have guided me towards some stuff I was never going to come across in a Barnes and Noble. And I think I was just looking harder for the next thing, because I’m not as surrounded by fellow readers the way I was when I was in an English program. There’s fewer organic recommendations coming my way and as a result I’m pushing harder, looking for books that are riskier, less conventional, harder. And I think it’s worth remembering, in an autumn when we got the professor who thinks women have never written a book worth teaching, and the curmudgeonly dick-swinging of Jonathan Franzen dominated the literary web, that some of the best books of the last couple of years were written by women. Here were some of my favorites.
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Loved for Strayed’s out-and-out ballsiness for hiking the PCT by herself (when she was only 26), and especially for the fact that this is a book that’s truly about a woman’s relationship with herself. It’s a hero’s journey in the old-school Joseph Campbell sense, but with a woman in the driver’s seat (or rather boots).
Pound Foolish – Helaine Olen
Helaine Olen covers money and personal finance for the Guardian and her book is a righteous takedown of the personal finance industry (watch your back Suze Ormon) and the fictions that Wall Street is selling to the average 401k investor every day. Required reading.
Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar
I think I have a whole other post in me about this book. It asks some important questions about why a certain (sizable) subset of American society is so obsessed with “going back to the land,” crafting, backyard chickens, attachment parenting and the entire DIY movement. We distrust society, so we pull back, opt out–eat organic, homeschool our kids–but what happens to the people without that privilege? Is it OK to opt out and look inwards, instead of advocating for things like equal pay and affordable childcare? So…I could talk about this book all day.
Heroines – Kate Zambreno
This is another one I could go on all day about. It’s a combination memoir-biography … scenes from Zambreno’s own life as a writer and a frustrated faculty spouse, intercut with the stories of the women who surrounded the modernists: Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Eliot, Jean Rhys. All of these women were artists in their own right, but were overshadowed and pushed aside by their ambitious husbands. Fitzgerald in particular comes off pretty awful; first stealing entire characters and passages from his wife’s writing, then tossing her in a mental institution when he decides their relationship can support only one genius. Zambreno is asking hard questions about what we think is “good art” — is it refined, with form and craft elevated above all, or is it honest, even when it is messy and confessional? This book is a challenging read and not for everyone–Zambreno pulls no punches–but it sincerely changed the way I read and think about literature.
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
I was absolutely nuts about this book. Like, reading it while eating and brushing my teeth, and wishing my train commute was even longer so I could finish it. It’s a little hard to even encompass because it’s a multigenerational story that spans WWII in Italy to downtown New York City in the seventies. The story is a little Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a little Renata Adler, and simply a lot Rachel Kushner–I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything like it.
Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book is freaking sexy. The main character Ifemelu, and her childhood sweetheart, Obinze, have pretty much the best love story I’ve read in fiction in a long, long time (and maybe my very favorite one I’ve read in a contemporary book). I’m really, really excited to read whatever Adichie does next: she’s brilliant and funny, by turns tender and blisteringly satirical. I shouldn’t sell the story short –it’s about immigration, race, family, and where we belong, and the love story is only a piece in the bigger story of Ifemelu, a smart, funny, brave character who I absolutely loved.
Don’t Kiss Me (Short Stories) – Lindsay Hunter
All I can say about this one is go read “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” Back? Ok, the whole collection is like that.
The Interestings – Meg Wolitzer
I don’t know if Hollywood has optioned the rights, but The Interestings is exactly the kind of smart, true, great book that feels bound to be totally ruined by an ensemble movie (MAYBE I would accept a Nicole Holofcener adaptation). It’s about a group of artsy, weird kids who meet at a crunchy camp in the Berkshires, and then grow up–some of them coming to terms with genius, some of them coming to terms with the lack of it. The truest part of it to me was how your relationships with your friends change as you get older–some people you think will be in your life forever end up falling away, while others return to you in ways you never expected. Very much recommend reading this before somebody decides to make a movie out of it.
Speedboat – Renata Adler
Not a new book by any means, but tverybody was reading Speedboat this year because it was re-released by New York Review of Books Classics. I am so, so glad that someone decided that it deserved a new lease on life. It’s a novel in that it is fictional–but that’s where the comparison ends. Adler created something totally different with Speedboat, and if you can roll with the non-chronological, untraditional shape it takes, it reveals so, so many gem-like moments that are bound to make pretty much any writer jealous.
Wolf Hall+Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
This year I also read one of Hilary Mantel’s earlier books, “A Change of Climate” and I’m currently working on “A Place of Greater Safety” and… you guys, Hilary Mantel is so fucking good, I don’t even know what else to say. I went a big Tudor-fiction phase when I was a teenager–Carrolly Erickson, Carolyn Meyer, Phillipa Gregory–and I didn’t think I was going to be that interested in “Wolf Hall.” Another Henry VIII+wives book? Another Anne Boleyn book? Do we really need that? The answer is yes. She’s a master.
So, that’s my list, of some truly awesome books by women that I read this year. What’s the best book you’ve read recently?