Forty Great Books By Women About Women

Last week my friend sent me a link to a list of 40 Books Every Woman Should Read in Red magazine. It seemed such an odd, eclectic list that it has tempted me to write my own. But without bullying modal verbs. Below are 40 books written by women in the 20th or 21st century that have something to say about being a woman, and I think they are all very good books. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments (my list isn’t especially diverse, for instance); I’d love to hear about your favourites too.

1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. Brilliant account of the plight of the woman artist.

2. A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Hard to believe this meditation on women’s ability to take on responsibility to the point of overwhelm is fifty years old. It’s still so pertinent.

3. Cheri by Colette. Surely one of the best novels ever about a woman growing too old for love.

4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Pulitzer prize winner about a disgraced woman’s uneasy return to her social tribe.

5. Ghosting by Jennie Erdall. A beautiful piece of creative non-fiction about the art of ghostwriting.

6. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. A portrait of tense but fierce female friendship.

7. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. The inimitable Carter’s take on classic fairy tales.

8. Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Poignant memoir of life with a newborn.

9. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. So much I could have picked by Beauvoir, but in the end I opted for her first volume of memoirs: mapping the creation of a female genius.

10. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim. The funny, bittersweet story of an ordinary marriage with all its trials and tribulations (and bad childbirth experiences).

11. Lying by Lauren Slater. Controversial memoir about epilepsy and the author’s tendency to fabulate.

12. Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar. This actually isn’t my favourite Djebar but she’s hard to get hold of in translation. She’s a brilliant writer on Algerian women’s experience.

13. How To Be Both by Ali Smith. A truly joyous novel about love and art.

14. The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska. I’m always trying to persuade people to read this. It’s an entirely original piece of creative non-fiction, not to be summed up in a sentence!

15. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I’m not a big reader of children’s books as an adult, but this one really transcends its boundaries. The story of a young girl who hunts the galaxy for her lost father.

16. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. The American Madame Bovary.

17. This Is Not About Me by Janice Galloway. Hilarious account of a gruelling Scottish childhood.

18. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Powerful and disturbing story of an abused foster child in the Depression Era.

19. Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. How many novels can you think of that feature as their heroine a brilliant elderly lady who knits? Watch Miss Marple wipe the floor with Inspector Slack.

20. Reading Women by Stephanie Staal. The author audits a class on feminist texts in the early stages of her marriage and new motherhood. It’s beautifully done.

21. Sherazade by Leïla Sebbar. A teenage Algerian runaway in Paris on a search for her identity.

22. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing. Coming of age in South Africa with a hated mother and a burning desire to write (yup, pretty autobiographical, Doris).

23. The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm. Brilliant account of Sylvia Plath that teases out the hidden agendas in those who witnessed and wrote about her.

24. The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Modern classic novel about women struggling to make it in Hollywood. Harlequin Romance meets Emile Zola.

25. Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. Beautiful coming of age novel.

26. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. One of the most original and extraordinary accounts of motherhood you’ll ever read.

27. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. One of my all-time favourite novels about Little England in which spinster, Mildred, watches the machinations of her attractive, trendy neighbours.

28. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. A recent edition to my personal greats. A novel about mothers and daughters and dysfunctional families.

29. The Group by Mary McCarthy. Following the lives of a group of friends post-Vassar in 1930s America. Was a scandalous success back in the day, still a great novel.

30. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Teenagers abandoned home alone cope with World War 3. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything else quite so visceral.

31. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. The story of a woman abandoned in a psychiatric institute for her entire life, for not behaving in the ways her family thought fit.

32. The Good Wife by Sue Miller. Can mothers have sex lives? Sue Miller’s gripping, ferocious novel about why they can’t.

33. Desirada by Maryse Condé. Classic novel about a woman’s journey of redemption from Guadeloupe to France to the United States, away from a neglectful mother and in search of her father.

34. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. A slice of beautifully written social history in this saga of a middle-class family during World War Two.

35. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. Funniest historical fiction ever about a giantess.

36. I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Gorgeous coming of age novel about two sisters seeking love and money.

37. Fierce Attachments by Vivien Gornick. A wonderful memoir about never being able to cut loose from a Jewish mother.

38. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Murder and madness in this historical novel. Was young servant girl, Grace Marks, a cold-hearted killer or a vulnerable child just trying to survive?

39. Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Gender-bending, cross-dressing historical romp by the one and only Woolf.

40. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk. This was a very controversial memoir about divorce when it first appeared. Hopefully now the furore has died down it can be read for the beautiful, expressive book that it is.

 

All Kinds of Everything Bookish

Mr Litlove quoted something mildly alarming to me the other day when reading Originals by Adam Grant, a non-fiction title about creativity. A Harvard psychologist, Teresa Amabile, asked people to gauge the intelligence and expertise of book reviewers by showing what was essentially the same review from the New York Times to a bunch of people. Only in one version the adjectives used made the review glowing, and in the other, different adjectives made it scathing. The result was that ‘people rated the critical reviewer as 14 percent more intelligent, and having 16 percent greater literary expertise, than the complimentary reviewer.’ I wondered what you all thought about that? My instant response was a negative one – if there’s one thing I can’t bear it’s a hatchet job undertaken by a reviewer who wants to look clever. What they gain in IQ points they lose in humanity points, although I understand the powerful emotions that can be aroused when you hate a book. I’ve only ever written one slamming review on this blog and I wince when I think about it still. Oh no, tell a lie, I’ve written two, if we include my post on Fifty Shades of Grey. Only a) that wasn’t a review and b) I don’t feel guilty about it.

Anyhow, having made this point, I now approach my thoughts on a few of the books I’ve listened to so far this year with trepidation, as I had mixed feelings about them.

I bought Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (well, J.K. Rowling) because it was one of the Xmas special offers on audible for 99p. I so nearly abandoned it halfway through the 15-hour slog. Now, what is it about this crime series that makes me feel so frustrated with J.K.? I suppose I feel she is an author with prodigious talents but a poor sense of what she can do with them. Essentially, I wish she would give up her fascination with all that is sordid and horrifying; I just don’t think she writes about it very well. Cherry-picking evil traits from myth and legend worked well for her monsters in Harry Potter. But in this novel, cherry-picking perversions from the catalogue of human evil makes for an incoherent psychopath. And we get an awful lot of chapters from his perspective, as he plots his crimes and thinks repulsively misogynistic thoughts and thrills over his murder trophies in the fridge (you don’t want to know). I didn’t feel these chapters added to my understanding of why a person should become a serial killer, or to my anticipation of the plot. I figured out he was a bad guy and I shouldn’t feel much sympathy for him when he sent a severed leg through the post in the opening pages. Instead they were just unpleasant interludes that I was forced to listen to because nothing screams leap in the dark like fast forwarding on my ipod nano. No, what kept me reading was the relationship between J.K.’s detective, Cormoran Strike, and his assistant, Robyn. That’s properly engaging and delightful and worth the 99p even if it isn’t sensational and dramatic. Sorry, J.K.

The other book I had decidedly mixed feelings about – or should say ‘have’ as I’ve only got about four chapters in and am in a state of suspended uncertainty over continuing – is The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. Again it was an audible special deal and I’d heard a lot of good things about it, notably that it was hilariously funny. In this instance I don’t blame Joanna Cannon as the fault is mine for not reading the blurb more carefully. I will come clean: I have a problem with precocious child narrators. I find them implausible the way I find the present tense implausible. The present tense can only ever be a fantasy of immediacy; no story can ever be written in the moment of its unfolding. And precocious child narrators are only ever a nostalgic fantasy on the author’s part for what childhood is like. Children can be very funny and perceptive, but only once in a blue moon, not in any sort of sustained way; most of the time they don’t understand the majority of what’s going on around them because that’s what growing up is for. Also, this novel is set in the 70s (much mention of Angel Delight) and our narrator and her little friend are visiting the neighbours hoping to glean clues about the disappearance of one of them. Now I was a child in the 70s and remember clearly that it was an era before human rights were extended to children. If I had turned up on a neighbour’s doorstep, I would have been kindly but firmly sent home. No neighbour would have dreamt of inviting me in and hosting me with snacks and information. But maybe I could overcome these quibbles and get into this novel. Has anyone read it? Should I give it another go?

Let’s turn to the great successes. I listened to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, a novel which I read many, many years ago and remembered loving, though happily I remembered little else about it. This was sheer class. It’s the story (taken from historical record) of servant girl, Grace Marks, who is imprisoned for life for her part in the brutal killings of her employer and his housekeeper. There was, however, much doubt and uncertainty about Grace’s actions as she claimed to have lost her memory of the crucial events. In Atwood’s novel, the ambitious doctor, Simon Jordan, turns up at the prison to make a study of Grace, hoping the fledgling tactics of psychoanalysis will help him get at the truth. Atwood has a lot of fun with the pretensions of male doctors and do-gooders alongside a complex, moving portrait of the young servant girl. I loved this novel. Just fantastic.

A more surprise hit has been The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Wilkie and I have fallen out in the past over his verbosity. Why say something in a sentence when you could take a good ten pages over it? Well, I was braced for more of the same, but somehow something feels different about this novel. Maybe it’s partly due to the excellent narrating skills of Peter Jeffrey who is making it very compelling listening. But it also feels well-paced with enough incident and suspense to be truly gripping. It’s the story of an ancient Indian diamond, stolen in the confusion of war and brought back to England as a young woman’s inheritance. It has the superstition attached to it of causing trouble, and when it is stolen the same night she receives it, the crime throws her harmonious family into discord and disarray. Enter a delightfully lugubrious policeman, Inspector Cuff, lovesick servants with troubled pasts, thwarted lovers, ambitious politicians and the amusingly dreadful Miss Clack, whose determination to sow the seeds of Christian thought have made her capable of rising above all insult. It’s a treat.

Well I have written over a thousand words and I’ve barely scraped the surface of the past three months’ reading. Clearly, there will have to be a part 2 involving Willa Cather, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan Unleashed, Malcolm Gladwell, Hannah Rothschild and more. I will be back.

New Books and Rediscovered Old Ones

So, I have fallen off the wagon, and spectacularly too. You may recall that I was not meant to be buying books this year. Up until a couple of days ago, that was going pretty well. I had only bought three books in seven months. If you look at the pile on the left below, you’ll see Orient by Christopher Bollen, Vivien Gornick’s essays The End of the Novel of Love (which were excellent) and Suzanne O’Sullivan’s controversial book on psychosomatic illness, It’s All In Your Head. This last has really split the reviewers on amazon, half finding it a compassionate book, the other half decrying its lack of scientific testing. But I thought science hadn’t found ways of measuring emotions, their strength, and the damage they can do to the human body? If science has no measuring tools, then isn’t science failing here rather than the book? Ah well, I’ll let you know what I think about it when I’ve read it.

I’m not quite sure why I weakened, but a trip into town on Thursday found me seduced by the three-for-twos in Heffers. And before I knew what I’d done, I’d bought Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Peter Lovesey’s Down Among the Dead Men (I adore his crime fiction) and William Nicholson’s The Lovers of Amherst. I put them in a pile and got Mr Litlove to take a photo, vowing no more. And then somehow, looking at the cheap marketplace seller books on amazon, I ordered Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the new Angela Thirkells rereleased by Virago, and one of the Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamilton because I’m interested in art theft at the moment (in theory, not in practice) and that’s central to the plot. And THEN, when I was in town today (I was going to have a haircut but there’d been a mix-up at the salon so I went shopping instead – honestly, they made me do it), I bought a book for Mr Litlove and, given it was buy-one-get-one-half-price, another novel for me. It would have been rude not to.  When I gave Mr Litlove his book, he said, ‘You think it makes it any better if you buy one for me?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ confidently. Because you have to brazen these things out. He doesn’t know about the amazon order yet. Let’s not tell him.

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So now I really must get back on the straight and narrow. Not least because I really do have a lot of unread books on my shelves. Earlier in the year, when I wasn’t reading much, I took to poking around on my bookcases, seeing what I had there, and I found all sorts of things, good and bad.

The pile on the right in the above photo is just a selection of books by authors I have been meaning to read for so long it’s almost embarrassing. On the top is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (I could have added John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids to the pile, too), E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (how can I have never read Calvino?), J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Joan Didion’s essays.

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I love non-fiction, and there have been several books over the past six or seven years that I just had to have as soon as I heard about them, that of course remain unread still. The above is a selection again: Stacy Schiff’s prize-winning biography of Cleopatra; O My America by Sara Wheeler (which tells the stories of six 19th century women who escaped trouble of one sort or another by travelling to America, including Trollope’s mother, Fanny Trollope and travel writer Isabella Bird); The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury (a mix of nature writing and memoir); Divided Lives by Lyndall Gordon (recounting her relationship to her emotionally troubled mother); Never Any End To Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (which I’ve seen recommended so many times in the blogworld) and The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte which mixes meteorology, notably fog in San Francisco, with memories of his brother who committed suicide.

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Now this pile might be termed books where I have bitten off more than I can chew. I’m not very good with chunksters, on the grounds that there is no good reason, ever, for a book to be longer than 500 pages. So you’d think I wouldn’t buy them, wouldn’t you? I even started a blog several years ago on the William Gaddis, as I thought it might encourage me through it. Several of us bloggers were going to read it together, though I think only one did in the end, that one not being me. I read the first twenty pages or so and it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, just that I didn’t have the necessary concentration over an extended period of time. I have a good friend who is a huge fan of this novel and I’d like to read it for his sake. I will get to it again one day.

Similarly, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I began for Caroline’s German Literature Month, did the twenty pages thing, never picked it up again. Forever Amber I am sure is a favourite novel of blogging friends (though I can’t recall who loves it, and I’m not sure William Gaddis is too thrilled about having it sat next to him).

The book on top of the pile, Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy was one of those impulse buys on amazon that sounded interesting, only I never looked at the page count. Imagine my surprise when it arrived! It’s larded with quotes from reviewers who call it ‘ambitious’ and ‘unusual’, which if  you translate those phrases like estate agent speak, you get ‘over-blown’ or ‘pretentious’ and ‘strange’. I do wonder what I was thinking. Then the Rumi… well, I thought I’d like to know a bit more about Rumi. I am not at all sure I have the brain capacity to know that much about him.

So that’s just a few of the books I rediscovered. Any there you think I should hasten to read? Any I should send to the charity shop?

 

Want To See What Mr Litlove’s Been Doing?

I have been longing to show you the new desk that Mr Litlove has been making me, and for several weeks it’s been almost there but not quite. Now he has finished it and I hope you’ll agree with me that it is a most beautiful beast. It’s his own design, using maple and burr oak veneer panels. You might also be able to see the fine black inlay that surrounds each of the top panels.

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This shot from a slightly different angle shows you the curved supports on the side. Mr Litlove had a lot of trouble photographing it because we lack a big enough, plain space against which to display it. The glossy sheen finish also has a tendency to reflect things! But I wanted a good solid varnish so that I wouldn’t be afraid of marking it every time I use it. As it is, I fear I may just end up on my knees before it saying ‘I am not worthy!’

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A little run-through of some of the other pieces he’s made so far. He’s made this music case for our dear friend, Dark Puss. Same materials as my desk.

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And this is how it looks on the inside – though since this photo was taken, he’s added supports for flute and sheet music.

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He’s nearly finished this coffee table for my hairdresser’s salon. The salon has a very attractive logo: a circle of scissors that looks like a flower. He decided he would inscribe it on top of the table and went to a friend who has a factory with the capacity to cut with either lasers or CNC.

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He took a variety of wood samples with him and then tried out a variety of finishes. The results were so cute that he thought he’d make a set of coasters to accompany the table.

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You may remember a couple of months back Mr Litlove went to Devon on a chair-making course in the workshop of David Savage (who is well-known in furniture-making circles). This is the chair he made, a much more contemporary design than he’d attempted before (a design from the workshop, not Mr Litlove’s), and using his new upholstery skills he added a slip seat in bright green faux-leather. He called it the Kermit Chair, and when he sent photos back to the workshop, they liked the idea so much that they said they’d try to persuade the other guy who made a chair alongside Mr L. to use bright pink faux-leather and call it a Miss Piggy. Given the guy was ex-forces and living in a two-man tent for a year while on his course, Mr Litlove didn’t fancy their chances.

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And this is one of the first chairs that he made after leaving his old job. This is a Sheraton chair in mahogany and he has also upholstered it himself.  We really love its classic lines.

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He’s now moving on to making ergonomic chairs. This is something he’s been thinking about for a while: how to make a comfortable, bespoke chair that’s positively good for your posture and helps those with sore backs. He’ll try it out with ordinary chairs and a desk chair, but first of all, he says he’s going to make me an ergonomic rocking chair. Yay!!

In case you’re wondering, we agreed that he would take a year to practice his skills and design pieces that he would be happy to make professionally. When we get to October he’ll have to decide how he wants to move forward – and I guess we’ll have to see what Brexit Britain looks like by that time.