Sunday, June 28, 2009

Where are the women on my book shelf?

I’m going to assign myself a challenge: seek out the best female writers regardless of genre and… read their books. I don’t think I’m sexist--actually I like women a lot--but for whatever reason the only book I currently own written by a woman in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And so, I turn to you dear readers…

I’m open to suggestions. My prefenreces in reading lean toward nineteenth century Russian literature (for whatever reason most stuff written by English speaking writers from the same time frame really turns me off: Wilde, Dickens, Conrad, ect.) I like intelligent fantasy--which I find increasingly more difficult to come across--anything that can make me laugh out loud, and whatever else might define a good book. My ideal love story is Bram Stokers’ Dracula, I love things that make me question my own life upon completion and anything I, the reader, get to take an active role in the reading process. I hate writers who spoon-feed me everything.

I won’t allow Toni Morrison as a suggestion as I already plan to delve into her works. I have tried Patricia McKillip and Mary Gentle and both were strike outs for me.



Terry Weyna said...

A.S. Byatt, Possession -- a literary love story, set in two different times, combined with a scholarly quest. One of my all-time favorite books.

Tanith Lee, including but not limited to the Flat Earth Chronicles (Night's Master, Death's Master, Delusion's Master, Delirium's Mistress, Night's Sorceries) -- fantasy written lushly and with great cleverness.

James Tiptree Jr., Her Smoke Rose Up Forever -- feminist SF that doesn't have an agenda; it just makes you think. Great stories that have survived the decades.

Ursula K. LeGuin, especially The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed -- science fiction classics. I'm also very fond of a more recent book, Changing Planes, about the perfect way to wait out the time in airports between connections.

Elizabeth Hand, anything and everything, but a good place to start might be the short stories in Saffron and Brimstone, which are uniformly strange and wonderful.

Jane Austen -- you really should read all six novels in order to consider yourself well-read! Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time, a sly satire about love and marriage in a time when that was truly the only option for women. Yes, it's early 19th century British literature, but you really must at least give it a try.

Terry Weyna said...

Did you think I was done? Ha.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre -- another classic that you really must know. If you want to be thorough about it, you can follow up with Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea, and no, I'm not going to tell you why.

Cathrynne Valente, Palimpsest, for your New Weird bookshelf -- wondrously imaginative.

Mary Renault, pretty much any of her historical fiction, but The Persian Boy, about Alexander the Great, is especially riveting.

Margaret Atwood, at least The Handmaid's Tale, though you could easily add in Oryx and Crake and many others (I'm a particular fan of The Edible Woman). The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel that you won't forget, and Oryx and Crake is also SF (though Atwood essentially refuses to agree that she writes SF), this time about genetic manipulation.

Steph Swainston, The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time, Dangerous Offspring, a wonderful New Weird trilogy with images that exercise your imagination like nobody's business.

Joanna Russ, all -- one of the pioneers of women in SF, a very feminist writer, strong stories, very, very good stuff.

Sheri S. Tepper -- be careful here, choosing which of her works you read, but do read The Gate to Women's Country, a utopia/dystopia book that is also feminist in its flavor.

Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan Saga, all of them. Great writing, and a number of these books swept up all the awards there were in the years they were published.

C.J. Cherryh, the Faded Sun trilogy. Never have I felt I was so *in* an alien world as when I read these books. Cherryh really knows how to write an alien culture; quite incredible, really.

Octavia Butler, all -- Butler's death a few years ago was one of science fiction's greatest losses. I'd only recently met her at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and was blown away by what a nice person she was. How can someone so nice also be the author of the brutally sad book Kindred?

Emily Dickinson -- a poet I never read until I met my husband, who is a Dickinson scholar. Each poem is a jewel. Buy the collected poems and open at random and read closely and you can't go wrong. "Because I could not stop for death," "Come slowly, Eden," "I'm Nobody -- who are you?" -- really, just wonderful stuff.

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses and The Moon by Whalelight -- closely observed natural history (nonfiction) told in beautiful language.

Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child -- you'll want to read more Lessing after you read this one, but it's a great place to start with this Nobel Prize-winning writer.

Alice Walker, The Color Purple -- I happen to think this novel is terribly underrated. It's a wonderful story. Spielberg did some nice things with it when he filmed it, but the movie is never as good as the book (unless the book is terrible; why is it that bad books often make good movies?; cf. "The Bridges of Madison County").

Okay, I've gone on for long enough, though I could keep going for much longer. I haven't even added any detective or mystery fiction, because I don't think you read that, do you? If you do, I can easily double the size of this list in very short order.

So much good reading! I can't believe you've managed to avoid these wonderful books for so long.

Chad Hull said...

WOW! And I thought my, 'to be read' list was long before. Thanks for the long list of sure-to-be amazing selections! My gut reaction is to go with the authors I haven't heard of, but I may be doing just the opposite.

I've heard of, and indeed been looking into, LeGuin, thought what I've always heard mentioned was her "Earthsea" stories.

I've read a few of Hand's short stories (though not the ones you mentioned) and loved them all.

Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler are names I frequently hear but have never read. Forgive the redundancy, but I have never, Never, NEVER heard anyone say The Color Purple was under appreciated.

I have no reason for this feeling, but somehow I am predisposed to not like Jane Austen. I trust your suggestions, and I've trusted you for a few years before I started commenting on you website. For some reason beyond my own comprehension, I don't like Jane Austen. That said...I'll make Pride and Prejudice the first book I read on this new venture I'm embarking on. (Then I'll let you know how I felt it holds up to The Brothers Karamazov--an odd book, as it is both my favorite and what I think is the best novel ever written.)

Mary Renault is another name I've known of and will commit to reading.

Thanks again for all the suggestions! I hope to be able to read all of these works in time. As soon as I finish up with Then we Came to the End and the third Mistborn book (which I can't even recall the title of at the moment--let that indicate how much fun I'm having with it...) I think I'll randomly choose five or so lucky ladies and start reading.

As slow a reader as I am, I doubt I'll ever be 'well read' but I do enjoy trying, and who knows, maybe one day I'll get there. Oh, for the record, there is nothing I won't consider reading in terms of genre. I have likes and dislikes but the only things that really turn me off are obscenely graphic depictions of violence or children in peril.

Yeah, that's right... I'm a wuss.

Terry Weyna said...

Oh, dear, I do hope you turn out to like Jane Austen. A friend who is a law professor in New York HATES her work and can't understand why I like her at all, so I do know that intelligent people can disagree. Just remember: look beneath the surface.

You can read Pride and Prejudice as a chick lit love story if you want to, but it is so very much more. Take that first sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." There is a wealth of irony packed into that sentence. Does this single man know that he is want of a wife? Or is just everyone else who knows this? And that's just where you start.

There is no point of comparison that I know of between Austen and Dostoyevsky. Apples and oranges. But I sure would be interested to hear someone make the comparison!

If you don't like Austen, though, please don't let it stop you from trying some of the others. Yes, LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy is wonderful (it's actually a pair of trilogies now, but I'm only speaking to the first three), and I've read the entire trilogy at least four times (and I rarely reread -- too much new stuff out there I haven't gotten to yet). Fantasy rather than SF, while the two I recommended are SF.