It has been a fucking great year for books about women. Not just books written by women, or books with strong female characters, but books that are truly about women -- books that treat womanhood as a topic as worthy of literary exploration as manhood or war or true love or any other aspect of the human condition. In so many wonderful books I read this year, women are the subject, both in the sense of topic and in the grammatical sense -- the one doing the things, rather than the object being acted upon. We've been talking a lot about unlikable characters and "relatability," but perhaps all these unlikeable, unrelatable women are a logical extension of a set of works where they are not relegated to sidekicks, set pieces, or romantic interests. How could they possibly only make good decisions for 400 pages? As I wrote about Emily Gould's Friendship in July: "This book is entirely about the inner lives and creative ambitions and life decisions of women. The men are there but they are so peripheral in the face of friendship and identity and figuring out your own choices as to turn invisible by the end of the story." My favorite novels this year genuinely made me think in ways I never had before about my very femaleness, which I promise you, I already think about an awful lot. The Girls From Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe might be the most under-appreciated book of the year, but I'm doing my part to never shut up about it. It's a debut novel about a lifelong friendship that asks the most brutal questions about family, disability, abortion, responsibility, and what, if anything, we are owed or deserve. It asks us to inhabit the lived experience of people we are tempted to judge from afar, and it is somehow both deeply unsettling and a nonstop joy to read. Another masterpiece of judgement is the forthcoming After Birth by Elisa Albert, which completely upended my understanding of natural birth advocates, the breastfeeding mafia, and the medical establishment. This work of fiction made feel wide open to the real-life possibility that everything I think I know about my body and my health is internalized patriarchal oppression. And yet? Another totally delightful reading experience. So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman is a few years old, and I came to it through the brilliant Katie Coyle's review, which I reread at least monthly. Again it recast how I thought about my body, this time as a vessel for abuse, as an atom of the contiguous renewable resource that is American women, considered by so many men to be as much their birthright as the land, the water, the air, the livestock. Hoffman weaves threads of environmentalism, economic change, and social conservatism into a thriller where the unthinkable is inevitable, and the most extreme retribution makes an eerie perfect sense. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a story about marriage, fidelity, parenthood, accomplishment, and art, as told through scientists and philosophers, failed space travel, and poetry. It is an expansive work about life as we know it reduced so flawlessly to a sparse 177 pages that it's hard to believe it didn't take home every major literary prize there is. It might truly be perfect. Read it out loud to someone you love. There are so many more I wish I could recommend here. I loved mysteries like The Secret Place and Everything I Never Told You, and even the middle grade poetry memoir Brown Girl Dreaming through this same lens. Everywhere I turned, there were female geniuses writing stories that helped me think in new ways about being a woman in the world. And I'm grateful. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
So far this year, I've read 56 books, an unpublished manuscript, and 100 pages of Moby-Dick. I loved many of them, although not Moby-Dick (Sorry Herman Melville/Amanda Bullock.). But the reading experience I feel most evangelical about was one of those brief passionate affairs, red hot and over too soon. I bought Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close from the front table at Word Brooklyn on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend and read it the next day, in one sitting, on a flowered blanket in Madison Square Park. It’s honest, sharp, enjoyable and unnerving. It’s witty but it isn’t cute. It creeps into your stomach and makes you dizzy -- at least it does if you're a 32-year-old woman trying to figure out life and relationships and where the last 10 years went and where the next 50 are going. While this book certainly covers floral bridesmaid dresses and date dissection over cocktails, it has a darker and more resonant undercurrent. It gives voice to my quiet suspicions that the decade following college graduation is one of loss after loss; a time of people you once loved immensely peeling away into parenthood or panic attacks or bad marriages or sudden religiosity or the suburbs. It captures those strange mixed feelings of trying to be happy for friends when they choose things you think you know will never make them happy; the helpless panic as the strongest and most ambitious feminists give up and give in or maybe just grow up and learn to compromise and who are you to judge anyway? It displays real wisdom about the ways that, over time, paths dead end and options disappear and life can feel like a narrowing of possibilities when you always thought it would be an ever-broadening horizon. Also, it's funny. When I finished, I did two things. 1) I wrote a blog post calling it "a perfect book" and recommending it thusly: "If you have ever been in your 20s or 30s, ever lived in New York or Chicago or D.C., ever been in a relationship that was good or bad or probably both, ever been politically engaged or diamond-ring engaged or had a baby or not wanted a baby or been an assistant or found out your ex married someone you both went to college with, oh my God you guys." 2) I gave it to my best friend from college. She related to it so intensely she refused her mother-in-law's request to borrow it because it would be too much like allowing her to spy on her life. In general, my favorite literary genre this year was what I like to call "women-processing-their-shit books," in which I also recommend Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell, The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle, and anything by Nora Ephron or Cheryl Strayed. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Rachel Fershleiser is the co-editor of the New York Times Bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning and three forthcoming books of Six-Word Memoirs. She has written for The Village Voice, New York Press, Print, Los Angeles Times, National Post, Salon.com, and several amazing print and online publications you've never heard of. She day jobs happily at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.I don't think there's one best book I read this year, but looking back over my emails, facebook status updates, and oh-so-tolerant friends, there is clearly one I was most evangelical about.Have you ever read King Dork?I asked everyone who crossed my path - working on the sales floor of a bookstore, that's an awful lot of readers - and no one had. When it was published in 2006, Time called it "Impossibly brilliant," Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, and virtually every other review was a rave, but somehow, Frank Portman's young adult geek-rock opus still needs some hyping.It's as funny and filthy and filled with the inhumanities of high school loserdom as everyone has said ("pitch-perfect... realistic, self-aware" - The Oregonian, "cutting satire... smartly skewers." - The Plain Dealer). But for me, the true brilliance lies in the complex questions of our antihero's dead father and the coded messages left behind in his library of classic books. King Dork is the only book I've ever read in which the mystery is never resolved, and I finished feeling completely satisfied anyway. For that near-impossible feat, this story is as sophisticated as it is scatological.In 2008, I also reread the always-wonderful Wonder When You'll Miss Me by Amanda Davis, fell in love with Elizabeth McCracken, sublimated my political obsession into Stephen Elliott's Looking Forward to It (I tried to tell Stephen how much I liked it at parties on both coasts; each time he would not hear my praise, instead turning his prodigious rave-dancing abilities in my direction), and enjoyed beautiful minicomics by artists like Gabrielle Bell, Ken Dahl, Alec Longstreth, Liz Prince, and Jon Chad.More from A Year in Reading 2008