Sunday, 15 July 2012

Culture Cloud: 10 Great Books by Women

When a friend of mine recently admitted that he'd never read a book written by a woman, I thought he had a pretty terrible sense of humour; then I realised he wasn't joking. Aside from being prescribed dreary novels in secondary school that he never actually finished, he'd not been introduced to any women writers, which really got me thinking about which ones I'd recommend first. 

Admittedly when thinking about my very favourite books, they're all penned by blokes (not something I'm proud of as a feminist), and I was desperate to contradict this with some solid ideas on who to dig out of the library first. Here are my top suggestions for books written by women:

Jane Eyre cover - Levante Szabo

 [Book cover design by Levante Szabo for the Re-Covered Books challenge].

1. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë

Yep, let's start with the obvious ones. Jane Eyre is one of the best written female protagonists in literary history, who isn't afraid to fight back when her cousin bullies her in the novel's early stages and isn't about to bow down to the backwards-thinking control freak St. John in its later chapters. In between she sleeps in ditches, braves a fire and faces the most prominent instance of  'the madwoman in the attic' from Gothic literature that would soon become a stereotypical plot device for writers across the world. Oh, and she doesn't look like a Disney princess, which is always refreshing.

2. The Color Purple - Alice Walker

With a heartbreaking life story, Walker's narrator Celie has definitely been through the mill (we're talking a good few years' worth of soap opera plots thrown at one character). The book follows her in 1930s America as a downtrodden woman who's trying to emancipate herself and move on from everything she's been through. Male characters are typically violent, cruel or easily led, whereas the females are generally world-weary and streetwise, including the brilliantly named jazz singer Shug Avery.

3. A Spy in the House of Love - Anais Nin

There's nothing like a dysfunctional lead character to keep you on your toes. In the case of Nin's Sabina, we're following a 'fire-bird' who is unpredictable, needy and not afraid to get what she wants.  In modern day terms she'd be diagnosed as having sex addiction and sent to regular meetings, but instead we see her in bars and desperately dialing a mysterious figure known as the lie detector.

4. The Best of Everything - Rona Jaffe

A frank and amazingly poignant look at life at the bottom of the career ladder for four women in 1950s New York, without the buoyancy of Sex and the City's altercations with men (try something more along the implied lines of 'pervy boss, cheating bastard and lying idiot' rather than any of the hilarious monikers coined by Carrie et al). The main protagonist wants more than a life in the typing pool followed by marriage to a complete pillock, and she's going to fight for it.

5. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë

If you like your female role models with serious guts then this is the book for you. Married to a drunken and abusive husband, at a time when women had no rights, our heroine ups sticks with her young son and makes a new life for them under a different name. Using a plot device of a story within a story (much like her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights) there's a lot to be revealed once you get beneath the surface of this novel.

6. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

Although the subsequent film adaptation by Peter Jackson didn't quite live up to the hype, The Lovely Bones is a cult story for good reason. With a unique viewpoint, we're invited into the world of Susie Salmon who has been murdered aged 13 and is watching over her community (including the killer) as the fallout of her death continues to affect everyone she left behind. You don't have to be a softie to cry at this. 

Wise Children Book Cover

 [Book cover from the Virago Modern Classics series].

7. Wise Children - Angela Carter 

A family saga but with a huge dose of comedy and just about the strangest group of relatives you've ever met, this is one book to devour. Featuring an acting dynasty, bastardised kids and some hilarious anecdotes, it's hard to put down and also likely to make your grandparents look incredibly dull in comparison. You might also not be able to think of St. Paul's Cathedral in the same way again, thanks to Carter's sharp way with words.  

8. Regeneration - Pat Barker

The first book of the Regeneration trilogy but worth a read in its own right, Barker delves into the lives of World War One soldiers suffering from shell-shock and what is essentially Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Using a mixture of imagined and real occurrences at the Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, with a particular emphasis on nerves and neurological treatments, it's a fascinating look at a pivotal time in history, with the war poet Siegfried Sassoon being an important character and yet another blur in the lines of fact and fiction.

9. Prozac Nation - Elizabeth Wurtzel

I'm not usually one for autobiographical reading, but Wurtzel has a lot to say for herself and she's an important mouthpiece for discussing the much-stigmatised topic of mental illness. Suffering depression and trying to create some semblance of a normal life around it as she goes to university and tries to carry on, Wurtzel's memoir is a powerful commentary on a condition that is often brushed under the carpet. She's now a successful writer and occasionally pops up in my copies of Elle Magazine.

10. The Book of Human Skin - Michelle Lovric

I've written a lot about this book and keep trying to pass it onto other readers. It's a very unorthodox but compelling story featuring a psychopathic nun, a simple but loveable servant and one of the most evil characters you'll ever meet. If the title puts you off then you're missing out (and the actual storyline isn't too gruesome, so there's no need to panic).

Other contenders that didn't make my Top 10 but deserve a mention:

  • Bonjour, Tristesse by Francois Sagan - written when the author was 18, this is a coming-of-age novel that looks at the difficult relationship between a young girl and one of her father's girlfriends, who poses a threat as she doesn't seem to have the transience of his other partners.
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier - another twist on 'the madwoman in the attic', but this time with her husband's ex-wife always at the back of the mind of our narrator, who has some very big shoes to fill. Housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is a potential candidate for most loyal staff member of the century, with her devotion to the first Mrs. de Winter.
  • Brick Lane by Monica Ali - now something of a modern classic, Ali's book caused controversy for its portrayal of Anglo-Bangladeshi life in Tower Hamlets. There's a lot to be taken from the story of Nazneen, who has an arranged marriage and moves to the Brick Lane area with her new husband, knowing scant English.
  • Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo - a bold re-imagining of slavery with white citizens as the mistreated, looking at role reversals. By turning things upside down she is able to make the perpetrating race experience being victims, whilst also making us aware that many of the events taking place are not necessarily about race but they are about the corruption of power and of people.
Do you have any to add to the list? Let me know.

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