March 11, 2015

Wonderfully Random List of Great Books by Women

This is Celebrate Women Month.  Of course, we should be celebrating women ~ and men and everyone in between ~ all year long, but this got me thinking about some of the books by women that have had a huge impact on me. Here they are, in no particular order. They might add a little variety to your reading list.


  • Caroline Lockhart’s diary Liberated Lady, 1870-1962.  I read this in middle school, and it was eye-opening in so many ways. First of all, she had a ranch up in Dryhead near where we ran cows in the summer. Second, she was friends with Buffalo Bill Cody. Third, she was a writer and a newspaperwoman. And fourth she had nude photos taken of herself as a teenager. Talk about your liberated lady! This diary is amazing and even mentions my grandmother.
  • Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneers! I love Willa Cather, and in fact a mentor once told me I write like her. The ultimate compliment! I love how she went there ~ in her life, in her writing. She reminds me of my grandmothers and my sisters. The main character Alexandra made a huge impression on me.
  • Gwen Petersen’s Ranch Woman’s Manual. I read this when I was young. It’s an Erma Bombeck take on living on a ranch, and it’s heeee-larious! “And then the adventure begins where your man says, …” She both glorified the job of ranch wife and made it funny. She made it cool to be female in a way nothing else did.
  • Anything by Virginia Woolf, particularly A Room of One’s Own. I adore VW.  My two favorites of hers are Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Her portrayal of interiority and of relationships is so sensitive and real and wonderful.  She does what I try to do, which is to show what it’s like for two people in a room, all the tensions and subtext. And A Room of One’s Own is her manifesto.

  • Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. This is a history that reads like great fiction.  I read it when I was very young. I don’t remember much about the plot but that it was minor nobility in turbulent times in France.  I loved the politics of it, how the family tried to stay out from between the warring sides. Such drama. This was perhaps the first hard history book I read, and I’ve been hooked on history ever since.
  • Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  Given my fascination with gender, it’s only natural that I would love The Left Hand of Darkness. I also read her Earthsea series and loved them.  Ursula, like many of the authors in this list, broke the mold with her writing. But the thing is, women break that mold all day every day by just living their lives. The mold is a fantasy. And that’s what I love about Ursula and her writing ~ she makes us question what’s given.
  • Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. Mary Renault is da bomb.  One of the first books I read with a gay protagonist, I think.  I just got swept away with the story of Alexander and loved it. History come alive. I should read more of her work.
  • Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. My sister Nikki pressed this book on me, but she didn’t have to work very hard. It’s an amazing book.  It starts with the main character sitting on the counter with her feet in the sink, staring out the window of a run-down castle.  What I loved about this book ~ and about Pippi Longstocking too ~ was how quirky everyone was. I come from a quirky family, so I can relate.

  • Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe. I did my undergraduate thesis on Margery Kempe.  She was never sainted, but she tried really hard to be. An amazing woman. She married, had a bunch of kids, and then convinced her husband she needed released from her bonds of wifedom. No sex. Then some monks adopted her as a cause, and she was almost sainted. This book is her hagiography.  I admire her so much for her unconventiality and her determination.
  • Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs. Oh, I just get warm shivers just thinking about this book. So comforting.  If you like happy endings, you’ll love this book.  Sarah was a contemporary of Willa Cather’s, but where Willa is hard, Sarah is soft. She portray the dying fishing industry in a New England town, mostly from the eyes of widows and women. If there’s one book I would press into everyone’s hands, it would be this one. This was suggested to me by my prof Beth Loffreda for my reading list exam.
  • Bette Bao Lord’s Spring Moon. I don’t remember much of the plot of this book, as I read it in grade school, but I remember being moved. And then I had a friend of Japanese descent (though this is Chinese), which made it even more real.
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. Oh, the injustice of being a woman in a country that does not believe women need to be educated! I read this for the single best literature class I ever took ~ and I’ve taken a bunch of amazing lit classes ~ postcolonial literature with Janice Harris. We met every Wednesday night at Dr. Harris’s house for three hours, and there were just enough great friends to be amazingly comfortable but just enough competition to keep everyone on their toes. 

  • Nella Larson’s Passing. Another great book Beth Loffreda introduced me to.  The idea of passing has been a useful metaphor in my life in areas other than race ~ gender for instance.  And this book is so well written and so moving. A tragedy in the way that The Great Gatsby is a tragedy.  In fact, I’d hold this book up against Gatsby any day, and I love Gatsby.
  • Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories. Katherine Mansfield was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf’s.  I identify with her in that she was from the country provinces (Australia) and then aspired to be a writer. But she moved to her New York ~ London.  Her stories are amazing, and she died tragically young.
  • Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. This book was the first feminist work I read.  It was an eye opener.  I kept thinking, no, wait. We’re equal now.  This can’t be real. And it served to open my eyes in a way nothing else did. It wasn’t really until college and my first women’s studies class that I actually admitted the truth in this book.
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. This book has had an impact on my life in so many ways. You know how diaries often are: they’re written for the writer and offer no context. They are indecipherable. Laurel’s genius is in that she decodes this diary and lays out the story of Martha Ballard’s life. It not only is a great book, but it helped me in my master’s thesis.  I studied six 1850s pioneer diaries, many of which were also terse, and I was able to use Laurel’s example to suss out the relationships and attitudes of the writers.

  • Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.  I read and loved this as a child. I particularly identified with all the nature and the isolation.  And then I recently read this to my kids, and they loved it just as much as I did.  For weeks, they tried to talk like Dicken. Like Harriet the Spy, this book holds up so well. I was afraid when I reread it that I would be disappointed, but my admiration just grew.
  • Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I cannot express how much I loved this book when I was in grade school.  I wanted so much to have my own spy route, but I couldn’t because I had to come home on the bus.  She is the reason I use my middle initial in my signature. I had the same independence as Harriet, but I was a good girl while Harriet lets herself be angry.  I only realize now that that was something that probably fascinated me. To this day, I push my anger way deep down inside me, and it comes out in unhealthy ways.
  • Madeline L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. I don’t remember the plot of this one, but I remember being moved beyond measure. Someone died, and the girl was in grief and she and her family took a trip across Canada.  I remember bawling at the end with the dolphins. The teenage me connected deeply with this book. I wonder what it would be like if I reread it.
  • Emily Cheney Neville’s It’s Like This, Cat. Cheating a little bit here because the protagonist is a boy, but I loved this book. It’s the first book that showed me New York City and probably the first book that showed me divorce.  I loved how the main character talked to his cat. 

  • Sappho’s poetry. I haven’t read it extensively, but I just remember how sensual it was.  And imagine it: an ancient chick has the audacity to speak, to have a voice! Cool.
  • Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. I’ve loved everything of Louise’s I’ve ever read.  I particularly remember the roughness of their lives and how I identified with it. Bad shit goes down, and people try to cope.
  • Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Oh gosh. I love to cook. It’s an art form for me.  And mixing cooking with the literature of magical realism here swept me away. The tears in the cake. Oh my. And the tragedy.
  • Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice. This is an amazing kids book. I love how the girl wakes up in the pig dung pile at the beginning. And I love how it’s not saccharine.  The person who teaches her is pragmatic. And it’s about a girl giving herself permission to be great. I only read it as an adult, but I bet reading it as a girl would be amazing. Something for which to envy my daughter.

  • Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. I read this for a college literature class. This is the first time I remember thinking about a utopia of gender. And realizing that women can have opinions about politics and society.  That maybe men weren’t always the default and maybe they shouldn’t always be. And it is amazing for its time.
  • Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles.  This play is all about subtext, and I loved it. I read it for a class. (I’m realizing here how many of these great books were introduced to me in college. One of the many reasons college is life-changing!) It’s about a group of women at a wake who realize that their friend has killed her husband ~ just by the little gendered clues that are left behind. I love how it illuminates and legitimizes women’s world.
  • Toni Morrison’s Sula. An amazing book. We have this idea of how mothers are these soft things with idealized characters. But in this book a mother kills her child to save her from slavery. How amazing, how loving, how horrible. Even before I had kids I understood the utter untenability of it all.  There is a trope through Toni’s work of mothers killing their children, and it perfectly showcases the fraught nature of motherhood.
  • Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I became obsessed with Mary Shelly.  I do that. I read someone and they spark my interest and then I stalk them. Not literally but intellectually. I read their biography and try to read all their work. I fall in love with minds.  Poor Mary.  Such a tragic life. She lost a lot of babies, and then her husband died tragically young. They were very poor.  Yet she wrote this amazing thing that most people probably think was written by a man. 

There it is. A totally nonscientific, wonderfully random rundown of books by women I’ve loved. Er, books I've loved by women. Nah, the first one: books by women I've loved. The list could go on forever, but there you are!

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