It’s that time of the year again: when those of us with holiday obligations try once again to come up with gifts for friends and family. As a bibliophile, I love nothing more than introducing someone to a book that I have loved and making a gift of it to them. I always hope that the recipient will love the book as much as I have, and sometimes envy that they will be experiencing the book for the first time. But matching people to books can be difficult, especially if the subjects that interest them are outside of your own favored genre or subject matter.
This year, those who love feminist literature and nonfiction had a lot of choices. For the feminist book-lover in your life, consider choosing one of these selections in fields that range from history to graphic novels. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start.
Plural Marriage and Women's Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich won the Pulitzer Prize. She also gave feminists one of their most memorable catch phrases: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Now, in an unexpected move, she has turned her attention to women who have generally been regarded as “well-behaved,” in that they have lived within a religion that strictly disciplines their bodies. A House Full of Females looks at the origins of the Mormons through examining the debates over “plural marriage” in the period 1835-1870. Her observations about fertility patterns among Mormon women are especially revelatory in an era before the advent of many modern means of contraception.
Think of “Jane Austen” and what comes to mind? Period dramas featuring polite young men and decorous women engaged in the pas de deux that is courtship? Well, prepare to have that image disrupted by Oxford professor Helena Kelly, who argues that Jane Austen held radical views that she communicated in her novels.
Every girl should own a copy of this marvelous compendium of illustrations and biographies of 100 of matron saints. These women’s names should be known to every person, and after enjoying this book, they will be. Whether looking for a matron saint of radicals (Kanno Sugako), or a matron saint of discovery (Lise Meitner), or more, readers will find much to delight in this book that is sure to find its way into the feminist liturgy.
Cocktails to Celebrate a Woman's Right to Booze
Who says that feminists don’t have a sense of humor? In this ultimate collection of cocktail recipes, biographical sketches, and assorted bits of knowledge, Grashin offers a bartender’s guide with a sense of revolutionary politics and laughs. Make mine an “Emma-Gold-Manhattan.”
Two centuries ago, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein and changed the world. 2018 marks the bicentennial of one of the most important novels written in English, and this book reproduces Shelley’s original 1818 text. Shelley was the daughter of one of the earliest radical feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued that women deserved full equal rights with men. Reading Frankenstein with a feminist lens is sure to heighten the marvelous experience of reading about Dr. Frankenstein’s lonely, sympathetic monster.
Oh, Carrie. How we miss you. Each time a new revelation comes out about yet another man caught with his hands where they shouldn’t be, I think of Fisher’s response to a sexual predator: a cow tongue in a box. In her last book, Fisher recounts life on the set of the “Star Wars” movies.
It takes talent to cause a reader to laugh out loud, especially when relating supremely uncomfortable moments. Irby takes no prisoners in her writing about such disparate topics as scattering her estranged father’s ashes to the most awkward of awkward subjects: sexual encounters. A gift for the reader who wants to laugh as part of her revolution.
A Woman's Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback
Robyn Davidson; with a New Postscript by the Author
If you have ever wondered what it might be like to cross the vast Australian desert alone, this book – which was made into a 2013 film – will answer those questions. Whether you believe that such a journey is a sure suicide mission or if it’s on your bucket list, Davidson’s writing evokes heat and dust.
An entire new generation was introduced to Atwood by Hulu’s brilliant adaptation of Atwood’s dystopian story about women forced to serve as surrogate mothers for powerful men and their wives. Offred’s story of life as controlled in America as a theocracy will keep readers up long into the night.
HBO’s surprise hit series chronicled the lives of women who lived among the one percent in mansions on the California beach. But inside those houses lived terrible secrets and lies that Liane Moriarty writes about with style. For anyone who has ever wondered what lies on the other side of “perfection.”
It’s impossible not to include a second work by Atwood on this list. Alias Grace, now a Netflix mini-series, is based on the true story of a young woman in Canada who went to jail for murders she may not have committed. What complicates the story is the role that gendered expectations of female behavior had on the way that Grace lived. It also demonstrates that Atwood is as comfortable telling the fictionalized stories of real women as she is imagining the lives of those in speculative fiction.
Gurba calls her book a “nonfiction novel,” which allows her to tell the truths of her life while not feeling beholden to rules about narrative. The result is an account of Gurba’s bilingual childhood in which even though she spoke fluent English, it was her identity as a young Chicana that led to judgments by her teachers. Some of the material covered by Gurba is disturbing, but it is Gurba’s reclaiming of the word “mean” that makes this book an affirming delight. Too many girls have been taught that being “mean” makes them unlikeable, and thus are unprepared when confronted with danger. Gurba makes the case that women and girls need to be mean when it counts.
A portrait of the artist as a young woman, Pond’s graphic novel recounts her life as a struggling artist in 1970s Oakland. Like many working-class creatives, Pond kept herself in food and lodging by waiting tables while she worked at her art. Her life as a self-aware server is a rich banquet of experiences that included the ridiculous, the sublime, and was colored in many shades of the human experience. A great book that demonstrates what it means to wait tables and to want something more.
One of the year’s most powerful novels, and a terrific addition to speculative fiction, The Power imagines a world where chemical pollution has changed human cell structure. The change includes the ability for young women to hurt men in such ways that women have become more physically powerful than men. Alderman imagines how the structure of power would change all over the world. Taking an extreme view that “turn-about is fair play,” she creates a world in which women now treat men in the exact same ways that men have treated women, and the results are disturbing. What makes the novel even more chilling is the constant knowledge that nothing is being done to men that has not first been done to women. Alderman anticipates the reaction, and the novel’s pace as it pulls readers toward each new plot development will leave readers shaken.
One of the smartest collections of essays in a year where smart essays were queen of writing, Chocano examines the mixed messages that are a part of every American woman’s upbringing. Whether analyzing the appellation “train wreck” to a number of female celebrities who have been through public mental health issues, to the constant presence of the madonna/whore complex adapted for new times, Chocano provides much to chew on in this thoughtful series of essays on gender.
It is remarkable to think that in the thousands of years of the tales of Odysseus have been extant, it has never been translated and published by a woman. In Emily Wilson’s new translation, our views of Odysseus, Penelope, and all the others is changed. “Tell me about a complicated man,” is its opening line, and Odysseus and Penelope emerge to be much more complex than previous translators have shown before.
Imagine if Joan of Arc had existed in a ruined world in the future. What would she have been willing to battle against or go to her death defending? In Yuknavitch’s brilliant imagination, Joan is a fierce warrior trapped on a planet that can no longer sustain itself. And far away, the story of Joan is secretly told by its inscription into the flesh of the storyteller whose own body has transitioned beyond a simple gender identity.
Eve L. Ewing
2017 was an amazing year for poetry, and Ewing’s book was one of its highlights. Her accounts of growing up as a black girl in a culture that doesn’t value black women feel like razor blades under the skin. And yet, joy bubbles up in her poems, too.
One of the most fearless collections of poetry published this year. Parker’s words soar and dive in a rhythm that touches on tragedy but also triumph, tears of joy and those of rage and heartbreak.
In a year where Roxane Gay, who has worked for years with only the attention of a small audience, has continued her ascent to the top of her profession, Hunger was an audacious book. Gay wrote with tremendous courage about the hungers of the body, of weight, of shame, and of the traumatic events that set her on a path to make her body an indestructible fortress.
Solnit’s latest collection of essays begins with the question that all women must decide: whether or not to have children. In other essays, she turns her attention to such subjects as Virginia Woolf and why Lolita would not appear on a list of books that a woman should read. Solnit’s erudition should not be confused with a lack of passion.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding
After 53 percent of white women voted for a serial groper and misogynist, a number of books appeared this year that wrestled with the divisions among women. In Nasty Women, some of the smartest women offered essays on living in Trump’s America, and not one of them urged acceptance of the current disaster.
A gift for those who wonder what becomes of the body while it is undergoing general anesthesia—perhaps the closest that many of us have been to the experience of death—this book looks at the notion of being rendered unconscious from a panoply of sources. A must-read for anyone who woke from surgery and couldn’t remember anything about the experience.
The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver has been writing her poems about nature and the soul for decades. In this collection of some of her best works, her genius shines. Oliver is a national treasure; this book demonstrates why she deserves the accolades.