Novel recommendations
November 8, 2012 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Looking for specific book recommendations that are superb and by female authors/female authors of color.

Putting together a reading list for a book club, and of course there are plenty of dudes in the mix already. Looking for more diversity, but in particular female authors.

The list so far includes books from Tom Robbins, Haruki Murakami, Italo Calvino, Jean Toomer, John Keenedy Toole, Maxine Hong Kinston, John Crowley, and Bao Ninh. Lots of countries, ethnicities, time periods, and writing styles are represented, but few women. OK, one woman.

If you could indicate how generally accessible your recommendation is, that would be great... I don't want to overwhelm the book club with too many dense, stylistically daring works, but at the same time, that kind of thing needs to be represented.

If there's a story about the story, that would be good as well. For example, the story of how A Confederacy of Dunces came to be published is interesting and adds to the work. James Triptree Jr.'s revelation as a female author would be a similar story that might add to the discussion, etc.
posted by jsturgill to Media & Arts (53 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Quick note: Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, James Triptree Jr., Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, and Alice Munro have all been represented in the past with this book group.
posted by jsturgill at 10:16 AM on November 8, 2012

It's SF, so that my turn off a lot of people, but Octavia Butler's stuff is hard to beat.
posted by bswinburn at 10:17 AM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Color Purple, Alice Walker. An oldie but a goodie.

Lots of very accessable books by Terry McMillan. I like A Day Late and A Dollar Short. Waiting to Exhale is probably more well known.

I also enjoy Eric Jerome Dickey. Not a woman, but writes from a woman's point of view. It's really interesting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:18 AM on November 8, 2012

Response by poster: bswinburn, could you recommend a specific novel?
posted by jsturgill at 10:19 AM on November 8, 2012

Joanna Russ' The Female Man is incredible (not dense, but very daring). Russ and Tiptree conducted a long correspondence while Tiptree was still closeted. They were close friends and extremely active sparring partners and the friendship survived the eventual outing. Julie Philips' Tiptree bio reprints some of the letters.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:20 AM on November 8, 2012

Zadie Smith's "White Teeth."
posted by nkknkk at 10:23 AM on November 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also, from the same glorious era in feminist SF, there's always The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:23 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Another oldie but, in my opinion, a superb book.
posted by Dolley at 10:27 AM on November 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Zadie Smith is great. I liked On Beauty more than White Teeth, but YMMV.
posted by number9dream at 10:28 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Roma Tearne - Brixton Beach, Monica Ali - Brick Lane, Arundhati Roy - The God of Small Things.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:29 AM on November 8, 2012

Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad" is one of my favorites.

Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones" and Téa Obreht's "The Tiger's Wife" were recent-ish award winners, as well.
posted by ikaruga at 10:29 AM on November 8, 2012

"Midnight Robber" - Nalo Hopkinson. Or her "Brown Girl in the Ring".
posted by batmonkey at 10:30 AM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri. I have not read The Namesake. I have read Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies (short story collections) by the same author. Both are accessible and very good.
posted by Fairchild at 10:31 AM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" would certainly provide lots of opportunities for discussion. Accessible but disturbing.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:31 AM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

My favorite of Butler's are the Lilth's Brood trilogy consisting of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. I've found that they're challenging even for some SF lovers though as few of the standard sci-fi tropes of humankind being triumphant in the face of great odds are there at all. In fact, humankind doesn't make it through the logical conclusion of the series.

I think I'd recommend either Parable of the Sower or Fledgling. Parable of the Sower is a near future distopian novel and Fledgling is her take on the modern vampire novel. Honestly, Fledgling didn't do it for me, but I don't like the modern vampire novel, so I'm not sure I'm the one to judge it fairly.

One more author, although she's not a person of color, to check out may be Maureen McHugh. Her stuff is also SF, but in a much closer to the literary genre and accessible in a way than Butler. Basically, McHugh isn't as down on the human race as Butler is. Of her stuff I'd recommend China Mountain Zhang. It's a book about a homosexual trying to get by in a future dominated by China. One nice thing about the book is she wrote it before China even seemed to be getting its act together.

My favorite of McHugh's is Day is Half the Night, but I seem to be alone in the opinion. I totally understand why most people don't like it. I wouldn't fob it on any book group unless you're doing a series on "Cyberpunk, corporate power, distopian near-futures, and their critiques."
posted by bswinburn at 10:34 AM on November 8, 2012

Two of my favorite books by women off the top of my head:

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (she was 23 when she wrote this, and given the style and content, really impressed me)

As for accessibility, I'm a reader, but I read them both in the middle school / high school age.
posted by wintrymix at 10:39 AM on November 8, 2012

One of my favorites that was recommended to me through a previous Ask:
Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek.
posted by perhapses at 10:40 AM on November 8, 2012

Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking is non-fiction that totally pulls you in. It is a record of her experience of losing her husband and separately, her daughter's grave illness. It is gripping and so well written.
posted by dottiechang at 10:42 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. You might try Cat's Eye or Oryx and Crake , by her as well.

Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is excellent, though quite long.

Jeanette Winterson's The Passion is beautiful, as are many of her other books.
posted by dysh at 10:53 AM on November 8, 2012

Angela Carter, a white British author whose work is both sorta fancy-pants and book-club accessible. I recommend Nights At The Circus or Wise Children as starting points.

Vis-a-vis The Female Man: I am an obsessive fan of Russ's work, but I hesitate to recommend that one without really knowing the reader - The Female Man has a long passage which can be read as really transphobic in a Second Wave way. I don't think this is strictly how Russ intended it and she later apologized for writing it the way she did, but it's definitely something that would have to be a point of critique. (Her novel The Two of Them is also a challenging read since it's trying to use a fusion of 1950s-white-America with Islam to create an estragement/critique but actually just comes across as Orientalizing...for which Russ also apologized later, although her poor health in the eighties and nineties prevented her from writing much at all, so there's no in-depth stuff about the book. Despite this, I think Russ is a better and more radical writer than most Second Wave feminists - even her political errors are subtle and complex, not just "ooh, Muslims are so patriarchal!" "ooh, transwomen reify the patriarchy!" - and she had the wit and honesty to apologize later.)

I bet that Redwood and Wildfire would be a really sweet book club read (I own it but I haven't read it yet, but I've read some of Hairston's other work):

At the turn of the 20th century, minstrel shows transform into vaudeville, which slides into moving pictures. Hunkering together in dark theatres, diverse audiences marvel at flickering images. This "dreaming in public" becomes common culture and part of what transforms immigrants and "native" born into Americans. Redwood, an African American woman, and Aidan, a Seminole Irish man, journey from Georgia to Chicago, from haunted swampland to a "city of the future." They are gifted performers and hoodoo conjurors, struggling to call up the wondrous world they imagine, not just on stage and screen, but on city streets, in front parlors, in wounded hearts. The power of hoodoo is the power of the community that believes in its capacities to heal and determine the course of today and tomorrow. Living in a system stacked against them, Redwood and Aidan's power and talent are torment and joy. Their search for a place to be who they want to be is an exhilarating, painful, magical adventure. Blues singers, filmmakers, haints, healers, and actors work their mojo for adventure, romance, and magic from Georgia to Chicago!
posted by Frowner at 10:53 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

(I should add, by the way, that in discussing Russ I have needed - as a white non-Muslim - to be mindful that trans women and Muslim women are participants in those conversations - that it's not merely "let's critique this issue in an academic and abstract way". I think those conversations can be awesome, but I wouldn't want to spring those books on a trans friend, for example, unless I knew that she was really in the mood to read and talk about something like that, and unless I knew that the group was smart enough and close enough that it wouldn't feel like "everyone look at the trans woman having a reaction to the book!")
posted by Frowner at 11:00 AM on November 8, 2012

Absolutely anything by Connie Willis. "To Say Nothing of the Dog" is funny and very accessible. "Bellwether" is a bit like a smart Doris Day movie. "Passage" is freaking sad. "Doomsday Book" is deep with some humour.
posted by batmonkey at 11:00 AM on November 8, 2012

I like Jeannette Winterson, but she's perhaps not as accessible, unless your reading group is into magical realism. Lighthousekeeping is perhaps one of her easier reads; The Stone Gods has a science fiction bent, brings up intriguing issues in that classic sf way, and is also quite readable. My favorite is Sexing the Cherry, which draws all sorts of fairy tale allusions and allegories into the story (it's more toward the magical realism end though, definitely not a story told in a straightforward way). Relatedly, I also enjoy Isabel Allende (though I would not start with The House of the Spirits).

Other good authors that may be more closely related to those your group has already read: Louise Erdrich (Native American, I haven't read most of her work, but Love Medicine was very good, and I've heard good reviews all her other novels as well), Sandra Cisneros (Latina, eg. The House on Mango Street is one of her better known works). Historically, I also like Anzia Yezierska, and of course Kate Chopin is just masterful with her use of language and would give your group a lot to talk about (there's so much going on implicitly in her stories!). There's Willa Cather as well. My mother really likes Annie Proulx, though I haven't read any of her work yet.

If you enjoy Margaret Atwood, you may also like Marge Piercy.

There's a series of re-tellings/re-envisionings of old myths by notable authors, including many female authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood (the two out of the series that I've read so far). Based on my sample to date, I highly recommend the series.

Interested in rural class issues? try Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina) or Carolyn Chute (The Beans of Egypt, Maine). Depending on your reading group, these may make some folks uncomfortable however.

If you're interested in historical fiction, one of my favorites is Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina, about the Battle of Blair Mountain, with a solid female protagonist:) Ami McKay (The Birth House, and The Virgin Cure) is excellent. Another one that I read back in high school and recall being good (and apparently more on the historical than fiction end of things) was Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene, about a rural county in Georgia during/after the Civil Rights era. I see that you're in California: I also enjoyed reading Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

You can do a quick google search to get a list of Californian women authors. Some of the links appear to have recommendations, not just a list. Here's someone else's list of 10 top contemporary women authors, as well.
posted by eviemath at 11:09 AM on November 8, 2012

I'm currently reading Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book, and think this would be a good book club book. It's full of stories and accessible but because it interweaves different threads of the history of the manuscript it describes, it's a bit more literary and meaty. There's a description of the novel on Brooks's homepage.

There's also a story around the writing of it, described in this article.

Are you concentrating on contemporary writing or ok to go back further in time? You could look at some of the shorter works by nineteenth century women novelists - eg Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life, Gaskell's Cousin Phillis.
posted by paduasoy at 11:12 AM on November 8, 2012

Seconding Carolyn Chute, but avoid The Snow Man. It's her worst.

Susan Straight writes about race and class in America. She's white and has three biracial daughters who crop up in her essays periodically. As for her fiction, Highwire Moon is liable to spark interesting conversations.
posted by scratch at 11:22 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. It's one of my favorite books and everyone I've given it to has liked it. It is extremely accessible, and highly regarded by critics. One of her other books won a Pulitzer Prize.

I think her stories provide a very authentic window into what it is like to be between cultures. (Most of her stories are about Indian immigrant families.). I believe she is the child of immigrant parents.
posted by tinymegalo at 11:24 AM on November 8, 2012

Zoë Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal is sooooo good. I enjoyed her other novels too but I think that's the best one.

Also Lionel Shriver. I've read We Need to Talk About Kevin which is great, and The Post-Birthday World which is good but no Kevin.
posted by jabes at 11:26 AM on November 8, 2012

If your book group likes readings that give context/background to current events, some that might be good are Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (a graphic novel, so definitely readable:P), or Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. Both are set during the Iranian revolution. Persepolis is a straight-up memoir. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a semi-fictionalized (to protect some of the characters, apparently) account of a women's reading group (which is kind of fun to read with your own reading group) during and after the revolution.

In the same general area of the world, here's somebody's list of top five female Arab writers.
posted by eviemath at 11:28 AM on November 8, 2012

I second The Female Man, and I'd like to put in a plug for Audre Lorde's autobiographical Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which blew me away when I read it decades ago and has stuck with me ever since.
posted by languagehat at 11:33 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Atwood--I'd argue that Oryx and Crake would provoke more discussion in a book club, though Handmaid's Tale is much more accessible. (I don't think that O&C would be difficult for anyone who's interested in reading enough that they're in a book club, but Handmaid's is a high-school English class staple.)

I'd also strongly recommend Connie Willis. Doomsday Book or Passage would do well, I think. If the club is willing to take on a behemoth, the double whammy (must both be read) of Blackout and All Clear is amazing in its depth, and, assuming that one pays attention to the dates at the start of the chapters, very accessible.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow was fantastic, and certainly has lots of points for discussion. It's very stylistically accessible, though the subject matter can be a difficult read at times.
posted by MeghanC at 11:33 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, if you're willing to do books that are nonfiction, I can't say enough about Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions, especially if some of the people in your group are parents. It's eye-opening for people who aren't parents, and many parents I've given it to have had very strong feelings about the book. Worth considering!
posted by MeghanC at 11:36 AM on November 8, 2012

One of my favorite novels of all time is Mama Day by Gloria Naylor.
posted by nanook at 11:40 AM on November 8, 2012

Response by poster: Don't hold back from recommending difficult novels... just mention it if they're particularly fun, easy reads, or particularly complex.

Lots of great stuff so far. Thanks.
posted by jsturgill at 11:45 AM on November 8, 2012

My favorite Octavia Butler book is Kindred and it's very accessible but also complex.
posted by shoesietart at 11:51 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston is really great---wild, picaresque historical sf/fantasy.

N.K. Jemisin is a black woman who writes well-crafted other-world fantasy.

Aimee Phan's The Reeducation of Cherry Truong is one of the best books I've read all year.

Louise Erdrich, a tribally enrolled Chippewa, has written many wonderful books; her latest, The Round House, may be one of her best.

Beka Lamb, by Zee Edgell, is a gorgeous coming-of-age novel set during the early days of Belizean independence.

If I can recommend a memoir by a close friend, Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun, by Faith Adiele, is pretty great.

I have a tag-searchable archive of my daily book reviews at, so that might be a resource for your group.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:55 AM on November 8, 2012

Barbara Pym. A bit dated, but good writing. She worked in anthropology, so her observations are accurate. Her humor is unexpected and delightful.
posted by pentagoet at 12:01 PM on November 8, 2012

wintrymix's suggestions are great. I read Cold Sassy Tree in middle school but THIALH recently.

Anything by Anne Lamott is great.

Glad jabes suggested We need to talk about Kevin which is one the most amazing, horrifying books I've ever read. It really reads like nonfiction, and it stays with you for a long time.
posted by radioamy at 12:07 PM on November 8, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or any of Shirley Jackson's short story collections.

Edwidge Danticat. Jamaica Kincaid. Marjorie Kellogg (Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, not fantasy novels--that's Marjorie B. Kellogg, a different author)

Rikki DuCornet is creepy as hell, but really talented.
posted by Rykey at 12:11 PM on November 8, 2012

Gah, just saw that Shirley Jackson was already on your list. Sorry.
posted by Rykey at 12:12 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I Do Not Come To You By Chance! Yes, yes, yes. So good, and about a topic that everyone in North America and Europe thinks about (international cash-forwarding scams) but from the point of view of a Nigerian reluctantly drawn into the family scam business.

While we're on the topic of expat Nigerian writers, let me also recommend The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin, 26a, by Diana Evans, and everything by Helen Oyeyemi, but particularly White Is for Witching.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:22 PM on November 8, 2012

Marilynne Robinson's 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead is a favorite of mine. It takes the form of a dying Iowan minister's letter to his 7 year old son, who in his last year of his life encounters his namesake who returns to the small Iowa town. It's about fathers and sons, the Civil War and the abolitionist movement, racism in the 1950s, and the nature of belief. I find immensely moving and profound, but I admit that many people find it boring and plotless.
posted by dd42 at 12:37 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto is really fascinating, a bit mind-bendy, but a quick and not terribly difficult read. (It's basically three novellas.)

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is amazing (though it is the first of a trilogy, I think stands alone just fine). It's fantasy and not really like much else that's out there. I loved the different world view it gave me.
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:40 PM on November 8, 2012

Anything Zadie Smith has ever written
Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Asleep and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Babyji by Abha Dawesar
posted by sa3z at 1:04 PM on November 8, 2012

If y'all haven't read Maya Angelou's memoirs, those are absorbing and super-human.
posted by batmonkey at 1:17 PM on November 8, 2012

I'm currently reading Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, which is written by and about a Chicana lesbian. It's hilarious, beautiful, moves quickly and with grace without being shallow; lots of lovely poetic turns of phrase without being at all difficult to parse, lots of allusions to Mexican folklore and Mexican-American urban culture, and it's openly, defiantly queer.
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:54 PM on November 8, 2012

I suggested Alison Bechdel's Fun Home in a similar thread.
posted by oflinkey at 4:07 PM on November 8, 2012

May I recommend Mary Dora Russell? Besides writing one of the most highly-regarded science fiction novel in the last twenty years or so, she's also written three historical novels that are all very entertaining reads. Subjects range from the Jewish experience in Italy during WWII, the political machinations that created the current Middle East through the eyes of a single woman traveling there in the early twenties, to her most recent novel about Doc Holliday of Tombstone fame (she's in the midst of writing a sequel to that one).

I love her writing, and she's a really nice person to boot!
posted by DandyRandy at 5:43 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been reading almost nothing but women writers these days, so here are some of my recent or favourite reads:

The Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley
The Guest of Honor by Nadine Gordimer
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
Out by Natsuo Kirino (Crime thriller, great read if nobody is particularly squeamish!)
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang
Evening Is The Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan (not my fave, but plumping for my home girl)

The Days of Abandonment by Elsa Ferrante

The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

The Spare Room by Helen Garner
Stasiland by Anna Funder (Non-fiction, but I love it so much. She has written a novel, but I've not read it.)
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

New Zealand
Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame

Great Britain
The Blue Flower/Human Voices/The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Girls of Slender Means/Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Angel/Mrs. Claremont at the Palfrey by Elizabeth Taylor
Saplings by Noel Streatfeild
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Old Filth by Jane Gardam
South Riding by Winifred Holtby
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Passion by Clarice Lispector

Sorry for the long list, but after years of believing in a stodgy, mostly-male literary canon, I have had a lot of catching up to do. I read most of these on my Kindle, so they're recent publications and fairly easily available, especially if you're not opposed to getting them from Amazon.
posted by peripathetic at 6:23 PM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Kindred, by Butler. That was a book that affected me incredibly profoundly. It's filed under science fiction, but the science fiction in it is not particularly science fictiony.
posted by KathrynT at 11:26 PM on November 8, 2012

Lauren Beukes, from South Africa, and the wonderful Zoo City-a noir-ish near future sci fi.
posted by purenitrous at 12:44 PM on November 10, 2012

Butler's Parable of the Sower is great - a beautifully written and wrenching story set in an economic dystopia with relatively slight science fiction elements. A quick read with nice emotional weight.

Joanna Russ' The Female Man is *very* challenging, I found, and very rewarding; it's a glorious postmodern chaotic jolt of a book, sarcastic and funny and exasperating, with narration that jumps from one character to another and a structure that at times barely counts as being a novel, but it's a brilliant work of feminist fiction, an angry, sad and clear-eyed look at various experiences of woman-ness in an experimental sci-fi setting.

Nthing Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow, another beautifully written and emotional read, about the first Jesuit trip to another planet. The ending felt a bit rushed, but there's a reason it gets so much praise.

Just a note about Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness - for all the hype about it being such a strongly feminist book because some characters are hermaphroditic, it got a lot of criticism for those characters still coming across as almost completely male, and Le Guin herself first dismissed (1976) and then acknowledged the validity of (1987) some of the criticisms (not least about her choice to use male pronouns throughout) in an essay, "Is Gender Necessary? (Redux)," collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World. Here's where she ends up about the book:

I now see it thus: Men were inclined to be satisfied with the book, which allowed them a safe trip into androgyny and back, from a conventionally male viewpoint. But many women wanted it to go further, to dare more, to explore androgyny from a woman's point of view as well as a man's. In fact, it does so, in that it was written by a woman. But this is admitted directly only in the chapter "The Question of Sex," the only voice of a woman in the book. I think women were justified in asking more courage of me and a more rigorous thinking-through of implications.

It's a disappointing book that hasn't aged well, in my opinion.
posted by mediareport at 10:20 AM on November 11, 2012

Lois Mcmaster Bujold writes science fiction and fantasy books. They aren't "literary" books, but they've one numerous awards and are quite accessible.
posted by NotPayingAttention at 8:23 AM on November 23, 2012

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