The year of reading female

At the end of 2018 I reviewed my reading list and was ashamed to find it all too male. Roughly three-quarters (!) of the books I read in 2018 were written by men. Coincidentally, that is right on par with how male most engineering teams in tech are, which is likewise embarrassing. And similarly I could explain it as a lack of intentionality, something that just happened in the natural course of taking recommendations from friends, looking at bestseller lists and public accolades, but in the end I’m still missing out by not reading more from female and generally more diverse authors.

As it’s now Women’s History Month, it’s a convenient time to check in on my reading for 2019, which is thus far 100% female authors and an excellent crop of books. Not to belabor the analogies to diversity and inclusion elsewhere, but I’ve found the overall caliber and resonance of these books higher than an average selection from my past reads. Perhaps I’ve held the bar higher, or perhaps women just have to be better to make it in a world that stacks everything against us. Regardless, as a reader I’m enjoying it.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy ⭐⭐⭐
I think I might have enjoyed this book as beach reading on a lazy European summer holiday, but it felt a little too literary for me. 

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin ⭐⭐⭐
Was hoping to like this more, but science fiction is always very hit or miss for me, so I’m not that surprised. I do always appreciate how science fiction holds up a mirror to current society, and I find the writing of female authors in SF/F to be particularly illuminating in that capacity. 

So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I’d had my eye on this book for a while but held off on reading it because I’m already so emotionally exhausted from diversity and inclusion work that I needed to muster the energy to delve into a book on this subject. It’s a fantastically practical guide and I found it both reassuring from the perspective of someone who is often stuck in the job of trying to gently educate those who do not want to see privilege, and also discomfiting, in a good way, in the reminders of areas where I still have plenty of room for growth myself. 

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The New Yorker calls Sally Rooney the “first great millennial novelist for her stories of love and late capitalism”. I am inclined to agree. I adored this book. 

(I first started hearing buzz about Sally Rooney, who is an Irish author, when I was in the UK, and I regret not picking up her second book, Normal People, while I was still there, as the US imprint isn’t out yet. One more month!)

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I finally get all the Mr. Darcy references! Regency English is a little slow to read, but Jane Austen writes some of the most delicious, wittiest dialogue I’ve ever seen. I think she would kill it on Twitter if she were around today. I aspire to her level of snapback. 

Shrill, Lindy West ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Funny but not light. I particularly appreciated her writing on fat acceptance, which is an area I am not as well-versed in, and on online harassment and dealing with trolls, which is an area I am unfortunately well-versed in. 

Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
This was a beautiful, heart-wrenching memoir. It’s so exquisitely written it made me long to be a writer, that I could capture memories and stories and the essence of people and place with such deftness. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. 

Women & Power, Mary Beard ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Short, punchy. Mary Beard is a historian  and her references to women in Greek mythology were a nice tee-up to the next book on my list. 

Circe, Madeline Miller ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
An extremely engaging feminist re-telling of the story of the Greek goddess, who I’d previously only known as the one who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs. I want to say this book “humanized” her, though that’s not right; perhaps what I mean is that she is relatable, when we can see her full story, and from her point of view. Some reviews called this book subversive, which to me that suggests that the forever male-dominant version of history and mythology is the “real” one, and this is deviant. Bleh, but I guess that’s the point, right? History has always been written by men, sympathetic to the male protagonists, at best dismissive of and at worst horribly misogynistic to female characters. 

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-lee Chai ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This book of short stories was so wonderfully resonant for me as a Bay Area Asian-American, both in the story arcs and in the little details. 

I loved passages like this: “Anping pursed her lips as though she were sucking on a sour plum pit, weighing a new complaint. Every night it was something else. The Ranch 99 no longer carried her favorite brand of dried cuttlefish, the price of eggs was too high, the Kumon in the strip mall had a waiting list.” The sour plum pit description is perfect. Ranch 99, the NorCal way of saying it — not 99 Ranch, as they say in SoCal. I have a favorite brand of dried cuttlefish too, the one I remember from childhood, and I still look for it when I’m in Chinese grocery stores. And Kumon! I finished the whole math program and my first job was grading math worksheets at Kumon. 

Is this what white people feel like when they can identify with all the references in the literature they read? 

The Private Lives of the Impressionists, Sue Roe ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Back in January I happened upon a lovely Impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery in London. In the temporary exhibit, plus the permanent collection, was a highlight reel of representative works from all of that early group: Monet’s water lilies, Manet with scenes of the Seine, Degas and his dancers, Pissarro painting Montmartre, Cézanne’s card players, Renoir’s studies of women. (I will never stop marveling at how much culture is accessible in London!) It inspired me to pick up this group biography of the Impressionists. I’m glad I did. I now want to go back to London and see all those paintings again, as well as to visit Paris and bask in the wide boulevards and parks of Haussmann’s renovation that were the setting for this group of friends making art history. 

New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Mary Oliver ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I love the simple, clean lyricism of Mary Oliver’s poetry. My copy of this book is all marked up with pencilled underlines of my favorite lines, so many unusual, captivating descriptions of scenes from nature: “the snails on the pink sleds of their bodies”, “the red thumbs of the raspberries”, “the kale’s puckered sleeve”. I rarely buy physical books but this is one I’ll keep around. 

One last diversity observation: I’m sad to report I somehow fell into the trap of mostly white women and Western/Euro-centric world first, though there is some diversity along other dimensions (like genre: literary fiction, science fiction, Greek mythology/historical fiction, short stories, political/social science non-fiction, memoirs, art history, poetry; and age: authors living and passed, amongst the present-day Sally Rooney is 28, Mary Beard 64). Fortunately I still have nine and a half months to make amends, and next I shall work to line my virtual bookshelf with more writers of color. I might even think about including some token men, but I think they’ll be fine without my readership and patronage.

[Update, April and onwards] For convenience, I’ll keep tracking my year’s reading here. Happy to report that since March I have done much better on finding a more diverse set of authors whose work to enjoy. It’s been easier to find strong fiction recommendations than non-fiction while also filtering on female+non white, and I’ve been seeking escapism anyways, so my reading is skewing literary vs. “practical” or “educational”.

Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry by the most recent United States Poet Laureate, a Black woman whose father was an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope. Dreamy and cosmic, but also grounded in everyday earthly life, Smith’s poetry presents the particular kind of focus on our own existence that only comes from a telescopic lens on the expanse of the universe. 

The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Quick, straightforward read with highly relevant takeaways for a generally stressed out population: We are taught that stress is a bad thing, but the scientific underpinnings of our pop culture understanding of stress are questionable. Worse, our belief that stress is bad for us becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Luckily, that also means that mindset interventions can be very effective. Reframing our perspective on stress as something that is good and productive can actually make it so in our lives. 

Given that this is a non-fiction, science book, it was not one where I necessarily anticipated the identity (and specifically, the gender) of the author to be significant. Not in the way, say, that personal experience forms a palette of details that a novelist might paint their exposition with. But there were numerous places throughout the book that I noted the relevance of a female scientist perspective; for example, in experiment design and research analysis that did not consider a difference in female and male subjects, and inappropriately over-generalized male responses to both genders. 

Chemistry, Weike Wang ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The deadpan narration of a high-achieving Asian-American female graduate student’s anxiety about her work, her relationship, her family, her self-worth, and her future. Her anxiety stands out in even starker relief when she does the compare and contrast with her white American boyfriend, who has a wholesome Midwestern family and a clear life path. The writing is crisp and excellent and I found the story eminently relatable. 

Severance, Ling Ma ⭐⭐⭐

Zombie apocalypse fiction, unusual in that it features a Chinese-American female protagonist, and also thus unusually resonant with me, especially given the setting of the story in New York City. Apart from that, though, not my preferred style of fiction. 

Normal People, Sally Rooney ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

One of the books I’ve most anticipated reading, and it did not disappoint. I liked Normal People even more than Conversations with Friends; Rooney’s exposition of millennial concerns about relationships, social status, and wealth, is standout. 

The Friend, Sigrid Nunez ⭐⭐⭐

Well-written and skillfully executed second-person narrative, the story of a student turned friend who wanted more. I thought the book had great literary merit but it wasn’t a story that spoke to me. 

In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Historical fiction about the brave revolutionary Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic; one who lived, three who didn’t. 

Kindred, Octavia Butler ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Power, Naomi Alderman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The wordplay and double meaning of the title capture the book well: In this work of speculative fiction, at first adolescent girls, then women, develop the ability to shoot electricity from their bodies, such that they become the dominant gender and the ones with the position and ability to abuse their power, literal and figurative. I found The Power extremely thought provoking as a novel-length version of the sexism test to invert the genders in a situation to consider whether it is problematic (hi, @manwhohasitall). As for the plot, character development, and writing generally, I thought they were just okay, but certainly serviceable. 

Whereas, Layli Long Soldier ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

An extraordinarily creative collection of poetry by a Oglala Lakota poet. The title references the conjunctive adverb that introduces pompous proclamations and legal disclaimers, appropriate to the many agreements that have shaped Native American compromises and reservation life in the United States. 

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Dani Shapiro ⭐⭐⭐⭐

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

All the Single Ladies, Rebecca Traister ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

All the Names They Used for God: Stories, Anjali Sachveda ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Seeing People Off, Jana Beňová ⭐⭐⭐

I picked up this book because I was visiting Bratislava, Slovakia, and wanted a taste of local fiction. Nothing exceptional, though I did enjoy the descriptions of the city as I got to know it in real life: “Bratislava. A city that forces you to pounce on something, just as it has pounced on you.” “It’s a small city. The minute you start off, you’ve already got most of it behind you.” “The city was lit with matte light and only tourists and freaks moved through the empty streets.” 

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek ⭐⭐⭐

Another geo-located read, because I was transiting through Vienna from Bratislava back to London. This is the book that the critically acclaimed erotic psychological thriller of the same name is based on. It is a deeply disturbing tale of a middle-aged woman, a piano teacher at the conservatory, who is repressed and tormented by her overbearing mother; she finds escape in secret visits to the porn cinema, and masochistic self-injury. Then there is a handsome young student who seduces her, or she seduces him, it’s ambiguous, and they have a destructive and short-lived illicit affair. Not my favorite type of reading but I suppose it’s good in the way that people find Lolita good. I also appreciated that music and music institutions are important in the book and not merely incidental, since I was specifically seeking a story set in Vienna, and music is so integral a part of the city’s history and identity that it is known as the City of Music.

Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Chocolat, Joanne Harris ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A light read that I chose for its setting in rural France, inspired by the couple days I spent in the countryside outside Paris at Fontenay-Trésigny for a developer conference-festival. This is the book that the movie Chocolat is based on. I liked it for its traces of magic and female, witchy impudence against the misogynistically hostile powers of religion and marriage. 

Beauty Sick, Renee Engeln ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, Greta Thunberg ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A short collection of speeches by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Like the Parkland High gun control activists, she is remarkably compelling in her youth and sounding a clarion call to action. If you don’t yet feel the urgency of the impending, self-induced destruction of our world, please read this book. 

Three Women, Lisa Taddeo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

LaRose, Louise Erdrich ⭐⭐⭐⭐

How Long Til Black Future Month?, N.K. Jemisin ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Song of AchillesMadeline Miller ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls, Carrie Goldberg ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

She Said, Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, Fuschia Dunlop ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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