I’m going to go ahead and call it a year—with just a couple of weeks left in December and one looming writing deadline ahead of me before January, I don’t see myself wrapping up any more excellent books by women by the year’s end. (Although I’m looking forward to resuming Hilary Mantel’s voluminous and intricate A Place of Greater Safety for my long unplugged plane trips.)
As I’ve written before, I have long made conscious decisions to read and purchase books by women whenever possible. But this year has been particularly fun because of #readwomen2014 on Twitter: it was nice to see men and women alike gushing about books by women, to witness the surprise and delight new readers experienced when they discovered the hashtag late in the year, and to share my own recommendations (although I mostly let Booklikes do the talking for me).
What follows is a chronological list of the books by women that I read and loved in the calendar year 2014. The list obviously does not include books by men, although I did read a few, and it does not include any books by women which I did not love reading.
North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. I needed something to fill the hole left by finishing Middlemarch a second time, and friends in the know enthusiastically recommended this book as well as the BBC adaptation. And they were right! This book is delicious fun. Imagine taking the social critique and interior characterization of George Eliot, making it a bit less subtle perhaps, but then seasoning it liberally with enough social snubbing and mild scandal for Jane Austen’s taste.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Confession: Sometimes I feel anxious about recommending books if I am afraid they will seem frivolous or sentimental or otherwise Not Serious Enough. That is something to actively combat, of course, so here is this book which has all of the earmarks of exactly the kind of book I don’t want to read. It’s a story of two sisters, it’s a story about a gay uncle dying from AIDS, it’s a coming of age story set in the suburbs. And yet! I was completing absorbed by their story, which took some unexpected turns into the weird woods of familial love.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. I was not expecting to love this book. I can imagine few things less appealing to me as a reader than a narrative of someone else’s reading experience, so I only read it because I was not ready to let go of the regular Middlemarch book club chats at The Toast. But this book is lovely and thoughtfully written, unfolding the well-known and more obscure details of George Eliot’s rather interesting life, accompanied by interpretations and asides about the author’s own life with a deft and subtle hand.
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Why did nobody tell me about Cranford? It’s a cozy series of vignettes about life in a town full of spinsters and widows, and it starts with this gem:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford.
And they are not missed. The gentle ladies of Cranford get on perfectly well without them.
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I don’t know what to tell you; obviously this was my Year of Elizabeth Gaskell. This book was unfinished at the author’s death and published posthumously, so it doesn’t quite end. Less sharp than North and South and less sentimental than Cranford, it reads at times like a case study for a 101 course in psychoanalytic readings of novels. (I wrote a little about this on my food blog.) Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to read.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman. I picked this up because it was said to skewer the personality of a certain type of white male intellectual that I know all too well. And it does and that was enjoyable, but I didn’t expect to see so much of myself in the character of Nathanial Piven. This book is artful in that you really get to see what makes each character tick (and irritating if you already feel a little overexposed to white liberal privilege, fair warning).
The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Please buy this book, and read it. If you’re a white person tweeting #BlackLivesMatter, well, good, but it is just as important—more so—for us to be listening to the truth as to be talking about it. This book tells the stories of five young black men that the author knew growing up, including her own little brother, who all died young. The book shows her struggle to make sense of these deaths in the context of a society that cares so little for their loss. It is difficult to read, obviously, though beautifully written. I read it on my commute because I don’t mind tearing up on the subway and because I could take it in short bursts.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I picked up this one when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker, and devoured it. It’s a good read with a brisk pace, but it gestures at immense problems of how we define and study humanity. I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that I usually read exclusively on my commute in order to leave time for other pursuits in the evening, but I simply sat on my couch until I finished this.
I read quite a few more books that I can’t fullheartedly recommend but I’m more glad than not to have read them. It may surprise you that I don’t care for food memoirs as a genre, but if I have to read one, let it be Blood Butter Bone by Gabrielle Hamilton. I felt deeply disappointed by the ending of Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, but she certainly had me hooked until then. And one happy outing to a used bookstore turned up Freshwater, an odd little play Virginia Woolf wrote for her friends, which was later published and illustrated by Edward Gorey.
This list and my longer #readwomen2014 list reflect my primary concerns in bookbuying this year: thrift and comfort. I downloaded a great many free ebooks and allowed myself to soak in the familiar society of the 19thC English countryside. Books that depart from that trend mostly came to my attention by way of awards or rave reviews. This is a recipe for a very white #readwomen2014, which now seems glaringly obvious. For 2015, then, I will make the conscious buying decision to read and support nonwhite authors and queer authors.
More on this blog about reading books by women: