Books by women I re-read and loved in 2015

I spent most of 2015 working on my dissertation, so I didn’t have a ton of extra time for reading new books–but during this process, I re-read a number of books I first encountered years ago. Man, do I ever love the books I am writing about. These novels continue to be my favorites!

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger. This 1933 novel follows a young couple who are active with a socialist group in the Great Depression. They struggle with their relative privilege in a time of privation, and flail a bit as they search for meaningful work–hey, rather like we do in the present day! The novel is frequently very funny–if you enjoyed skewering the left-leaning male intellectual in The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. then you’ll be amused at the comedic lack of self-awareness the Marxist men display here–but it is also bitterly sad, particularly in light of how modern and unchanged so much of it feels.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I’ve read this maybe twice before, but I re-read it in one day and cried a little anyway. This novel is about a girl who develops the ability to taste emotions in food. When her mother bakes her a birthday cake, she is overwhelmed by her mother’s sadness and helplessness, and she turns to junk food to disconnect herself from these too-intimate insights into the emotional landscapes around her. As she gets older, she learns to manage it and can sort out the tastes of the tomato farmers and herb growers in a marinara sauce. It’s a whimsical premise taken quite seriously, and the result is a commentary not only on how we eat but how interconnected our lives are, how much we need those connections, but how hard it is to bear them.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. This novel has nothing to do with anything I was working on. I just had a hankering for something familiar in which I could learn something new, as is so often the case when one re-reads Middlemarch. Daniel Deronda was written later in Eliot’s life and, perhaps oddly, seems more morally rigid: Grandcourt is simply wicked without any of Bulstrode’s philantropy; Daniel and Rachel are pure and virtuous without Dorothea’s pride or character growth. But despite that and despite the book’s length, I was once again completely absorbed by Gwendolen’s rise and fall, Daniel’s yearning for a sense of cultural belonging, and all the glittering detail of their rather glamorous lives.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I must have read this book three or four times already, but what happens is that any time I pick it up to look for a certain quote or flesh out my notes for a chapter, I then get sucked in and read it all over again. It’s not a long read; it’s lush with description of venerable old houses and dazzling ballgowns and trembling lips or curls, but despite all that it moves like a police procedural through the stages of malaise and marital deception. Chapters end on the cusp of crisis–does May know, or doesn’t she?! Will Ellen stay, or won’t she?!–and you must keep reading. And despite all that, it’s still as tender and moving and unforgiving a portrait of romantic love as I’ve ever read. No wonder it won Wharton a Pulitzer.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Another book I’ve read half a dozen times, in part because I used to assign the novel to my college composition class. The comp textbook was themed around popular culture–advertising, narrative media, political journalism, etc.–so from there we would move to Atwood’s dystopian vision of a corporatocratic future, in which society is stratified into those who work for multinational companies (and live safely on their insular compounds) and those who live outside and have little choice but to consume the food and clothes and media these companies provide. In the character of Jimmy, who we see grow from a sweet little boy to an entitled but deeply inseure man to the seemingly sole survivor of an apocalyptic event, the novel makes a biting critique of toxic masculinity, late capitalism its compulsory consumerism, and climate change denialism all at once.
The sequels to this novel are not quite so sharp or compelling, but I think I’ll have to re-read those too just to stay in this world a little longer.

Not a novel, but I have to give a shout-out to Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo. First published in 1993, this book seems a little dated in some respects, such as its persistent concern with anorexia as a metaphor. But its sharp observations about bodies and capitalism, feminine beauty standards, and the shifts in cultural attitudes toward body size are still terrifyingly relevant, and I continually appreciate Bordo’s consistent if brief acknowledgements of how individuals of different races, genders, and cultural identifications negotiate these standards differently. More on this blog.

And if you missed it: books I read for the first time and loved in 2015!

Books by women I’ve read in 2013

At Flavorwire, Lilit Marcus explains why she only read books by women in 2013:

I’m a writer. When my book, Save the Assistants, came out in 2011, all I wanted was for other people to read it. So it seemed only logical to repay the favor. Most of my favorite writers – Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf – are women, albeit dead ones. So, with nods to Joanna Russ and Tallulah Bankhead, I vowed to spend 2013 being an audience. An audience for female writers only.

The reference to Joanna Russ is in regard to her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing; the nod to Tallulah Bankhead for the line “Don’t be an actress, darling, be an audience.”
It’s a good read; Marcus name-checks some of the books that particularly moved her (several of which I also read and loved) and describes the subtle ways this literary diet impacted her worldview, leading her to vow to read books by other similarly under-sung authors next year.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me (especially anyone I’ve dated) that reading books by women is my usual modus operandi. I don’t refuse to read books by men, but at some point in college I just got weary of the overcelebration of white male authors, and being of a contrary nature decided not to bother with the John Updikes and Philip Roths of the world. Eventually I had to read some books by them for my qualifying exams, and came to a similar conclusion as Marcus does in her piece: I wasn’t missing much. You can’t read all of the books, and I choose to primarily read books by women.

Anyone who wants to see what I’ve read and reviewed is welcome to my Booklikes shelf, but half the fun of these year-end lists is in revisiting the pleasures of reading all over again. Thus I present, in chronological order, some of the best books by women I read in 2013:

  • The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, which I write about in more detail at my food blog.
  • The glorious Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, hot on the heels of having read Bring up the Bodies. So many retellings of Henry VIII’s reign amount to no more than a tittering reanimation of starcrossed love and political intrigue. Mantel is interested less in scandal than in what it meant to be a subject in this period–literally a subject of the king, yet also a sovereign individual self who desires and dissembles. And the writing is so precise and so good!
  • Bloodroot, by Amy Greene, was spell-binding. One tires of reading novels about domestic abuse, particular those that sanctify the victim and imagine violence an inherent quality of Southern Otherness, but this book does neither. It tells its particular story with intensity, beauty, and a little magic.
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Coming of age after environmental disasters have knocked Earth’s rotation off-kilter, causing the days to lengthen incredibly and the Earth to wither under an intense sun.
  • I loved every single short story in Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, which is an astonishing record for me. She writes fantastical worlds and uncanny hungers that are quite realistic and compelling.
  • I re-read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights shortly after getting an e-reader several years ago, but somehow I’d never read anything by Anne Bronte until now. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a great discovery!
  • I enjoyed the final book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, though if you haven’t read Oryx & Crake, I strongly, strongly recommend getting that one first. Much of the fun of the last book is in the loose ends it ties up for recurring characters.
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker was a tough read for someone who has or is struggling with depression and/or academia. Stories of unfinished dissertations are the worst, except when they are the best. (See also Middlemarch, below.) But it’s also a story of family and love and self-definition and what we have the right to expect from others, and quite beautifully written.
  • I read Life on Mars, a poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith, as though it were a good novel: cover to cover, enjoying every minute.
  • Likewise, I was excited to get my copy of Getting Lucky, poems by Nicole Steinberg, even though I had seen many of them before; they are great fun and quite smart. Blogged about it here and here!
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki had that same elegiac, pastiched feel that I enjoyed from My Year of Meats, but a little more magic.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is epic in scope and various in texture. It encompasses the arc of Ifemelu from growing up in Nigeria to attending school in America and eventually returning home a changed woman; excerpts of her blog about race in America, in a quite different tone from the lyrical narration of her story; and the arc of her high school sweetheart Obinze as he travels to England and back, also told in a quite different tone, almost sepia as if Ifemelu’s narrator is retelling Obinze’s story from memory. This book was riveting and I cannot recommend it enough. It would be an incredible literature course assignment too, I think.
  • Finally, although I read it for the first time not long ago, I started re-reading Middlemarch by George Eliot after enjoying the banter of The Toast’s Middlemarch book club. I meant to read section by section, not getting too far ahead of the book club conversations, but I literally cannot stop. I love this novel so much.

 

 

So that the male authors do not feel left out, I read and kind of liked Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski and The Dinner by Herman Koch–both translations of foreign novels, interestingly–as well as The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. One male-authored book I truly loved this year was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole. But those guys don’t need my help in promoting them; the apparatus is already calibrated toward their advancement.