Last month, K.T. Bradford posted a challenge, encouraging readers to spend a whole year reading books by anyone other than straight, white, cisgender men for a year. Some of the responses were sadly predictable. But it’s also been a delight to read about the pleasure readers who undertook similar exercises found when they got around to books that had lingered on their to-do lists for years, or that they found as they stretched beyond the roster of authors they already knew.
“Not only did I finally getting around to authors and books I’d meant to read forever, like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar and Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, I discovered new at least two new heroes, of whom the second is Octavia Butler, who wrote cracking-good page-turners dealing with massively complex topics in prose as lean and economical as the best of Raymond Chandler (I’ve since learned not to start a new book by her unless I can block out a day or two to finish it),” wrote Dallas Taylor. “I read Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire, which I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since (it deserves a post of its own, frankly), and Caren Gussoff’s The Birthday Problem, which is not so much a traditional narrative as it is a constellation of lives and how they touch one another in tenuous and profound ways.”
In that same spirit of joy and discovery, I wanted to share some of my favorite books by women. I’ve arranged this list of 24 volumes (two per month if you were to take on a year of reading) in pairs of two, since one of the joys of reading is how one book can open up things you never noticed before in another.
1. “My Brilliant Friend,” by Elena Ferrante and “Last Things,” by Jenny Offill: What I love about both of these books is the way they portray women who don’t quite fit into the roles available to them. “My Brilliant Friend,” the first volume in Ferrante’s hugely compelling Neapolitan series, tracks the friendship of two tremendously intelligent girls in post-World War II Naples, one of whom escapes for college, another of whom decides to get married. Offill’s debut novel, set in contemporary Vermont, is told from the perspective of another young girl who adores her eccentric and increasingly unstable mother. They’re perfect, slim companion novels.
2. “The Bright Continent,” by Dayo Olopade and “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” by Katherine Boo: I’m all for reading fiction by women, but it was important to me to include reportage and history, too; we deserve to be able to tell our own stories in the real world, as well as to imagine better futures that might or might not come to pass. Olopade’s “The Bright Continent” is a jaunty, optimistic guide to innovation in Africa, while Boo’s deeply reported story of a Mumbai neighborhood looks at how innovation can happen even at the lowest rungs of a country’s economic and social ladder.
3. “The Round House,” by Louise Erdrich and “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt: If one of the reasons to read books by women is to see the differences between how women write about us and how we write about ourselves, it’s also valuable to see the ways men write about themselves and how women write about men. Erdrich’s “The Round House” is a stunning story about a son trying to help his mother after she is raped and failed by the legal system on the Native American reservation where she lives, while “The Secret History” is Tartt’s unsettling debut novel about a college student who allows himself to be charmed by an amoral group of his fellow undergraduates.
4. “Marriage, A History,” by Stephanie Coontz and “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” by Megan Marshall: Coontz’s book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in debates over the future of marriage, and Marshall’s wonderful biography of Margaret Fuller explores what it was like to try to forge a life outside that all-consuming institution before it was acceptable to do so.
5. “At the Dark End of the Street,” by Danielle McGuire and “Who Fears Death,” by Nnedi Okorafor: I’m reading “At the Dark End of the Street,” a fascinating history of the civil rights movement that brings sexual violence to the fore and examines it as a critical tool in maintaining white supremacy, and I’m already so excited about it that I want everyone to read it so I can talk about it with you. And it’s an interesting book to pair with Okorafor’s novel, which examines rape as a weapon of war, and, in her science fictional universe, a source of unexpected super-powers.
6. “Pioneer Girl,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder and “The Wilder Life,” by Wendy McClure: Anyone who grew up obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels about her family’s roamings across the upper Midwest absolutely ought to check out “Pioneer Girl,” the re-released and annotated original manuscript that became the basis for the “Little House” books. And I love McClure’s chronicle of her obsession with Wilder; read together, they’re a fascinating illustration of the gaps between reality and product, and the fantasies that product inspires.
7. “In Our Time,” by Susan Brownmiller and “Terminal Velocity,” by Blanche McCrary Boyd: Brownmiller’s memoir is both a concise chronicle of radical second-wave feminism and an honest reckoning with Brownmiller’s own failures of vision and evolving politics. She also shouts out “Terminal Velocity,” a novel about the fringe of the second wave that I’ve read over and over again, as one of the few novels to capture the fevered atmosphere of the era. She’s right.
8. “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day,” by Nikki Giovanni and “The Complete Poems: Anne Sexton,” by Anne Sexton: I have both of these volumes close at hand all the time; they’re fascinating examples of women grappling in very different ways with anger that stems from very different sources. And while I love prose writing, the discipline of poetry is always just astonishing to me.
9. “The Woman Upstairs,” by Claire Messud and “The Wife,” by Meg Wolitzer: These two novels aren’t quite horror stories, as “Gone Girl” would lead us to understand them. But both of these books about women and frustrated creativity are chronicles of nightmares, one of a woman whose ambition becomes a source of foolishness and humiliation, another who sublimates her own creative energies in someone else’s work.
10. “This Republic of Suffering,” by Drew Gilpin Faust and “Gone With The Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell: Faust, now president of Harvard, wrote this terrific history of the way that the American Civil War forced the country to change the way it dealt with death: Armies developed new identification systems for soldiers killed in battle, entrepreneurs started new coffin systems and religious people had to develop new notions of a “good death.” It’s worth reading for contrast with “Gone With The Wind,” which will have its 80th anniversary next year. And while Margaret Mitchell’s classic is undeniably racist, it’s also an unpredictable book, full of all sorts of penetrating psychological insights.
11. “Bella!” by Bella Abzug and “Grace: A Memoir,” by Grace Coddington: Bella Abzug’s diary of a year in Congress is difficult to track down, but it’s a fascinating, funny read, and I’m not only saying that because my mother used to work for her. And it’s worth reading with Grace Coddington’s memoir, not just because they cover some of the same years, but because they’re two very different takes on women finding their places in highly particular industries.
12. “Love Trouble Is My Business,” by Veronica Geng and “Texts from Jane Eyre,” by Mallory Ortberg: I wanted to end this list with two female humor writers I adore. Geng was a brilliant New Yorker staffer who wrote bizarre genre mash-ups and seemed to be constructing all of her pieces as elaborate games that reaped huge rewards if you were smart enough to understand them. And Ortberg feels like one of Geng’s descendents, someone who rereads and remashes existing material to hilarious results.