In the mid-1990s (way back in my early childhood—lol), I completed a graduate program in Russian literature. To prepare for comprehensive exams, I devoted three years to reading my way through a list of novels, short stories, and poems by such luminaries as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and others. Once I had passed the exams and found a spare moment to think back, I came to a startling realization: it had been ages since I last read a book by a woman.
Aside from a tiny handful of poets (poetesses, as they were often called at the time), the classics of Russian literature included no women.
Of course, I loved the Russian masters just as I’ve loved and enjoyed many other books by male authors over the years. I wouldn’t dream of boycotting them, but it did seem appropriate to play a bit of catch-up by making a point of reading more books by women.
Now that 2014 has entered its final season, I want to remind readers of a special meme that aims to correct the ongoing gender imbalance among reviewers and books selected for review at major newspapers and literary magazines. Variously known as #readwomen2014 and #ayearofreadingwomen, this meme originated last January with blogger, writer, and illustrator Joanna Walsh. The purpose has been to introduce more readers to fantastic work by female authors.
The bookmarks Walsh created to promote #readwomen2014 appear above, featuring Anne Carson,Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and others. She celebrates a newer set of authors in more recent designs here. And click here to read her introduction to the project overall.
Since I’ve always been intrigued with world literature and foreign lands, I’d like to share a short list of novels I’ve enjoyed this year by women writers of diverse international heritage. All of them count English as heir native language, so these are not works in translation. From crime and intrigue to spiritual redemption, each of these books offers a thrilling glimpse into different ways of life. And, of course, each provides a wealth of reading pleasure—
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
A strikingly original and evocative story. Chapters alternate between a schoolgirl’s journal, washed ashore on an island off British Columbia, and the novelist (not coincidentally named Ruth) who finds the journal and tries to discover what became of the author. Zen Buddhism, World War II history, and Japanese pop culture all come to bear on the young girl’s struggle to overcome bullying at school and mental illness in the family. A backdrop of natural disasters and the Fukushima reactor meltdown heightens the drama. In recounting dire and serious problems, the narrative voice strikes an endearing harmony of flippant and childlike tones, by turns depressive and humorous.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This celebrated novel tells the story of a star-crossed Nigerian couple. Zed and Ifemelu are lovers as well as best friends, but the oppressive effects of corruption and organized crime drive them apart like powerful ocean currents. Ifemelu emigrates to America and finds professional success but can’t bring herself to put down roots. Back home, the friend she remembers so tenderly struggles to make a living without losing his soul. Gradually, the two resume contact as the heroine ponders a return to her troubled homeland.
The Lowland by Jumpa Lahiri
Action shifts between Calcutta and the rural campus of an unnamed university in Massachusetts as we follow the lives of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan. They are intimates and confidants until Subhash—the elder by one year—goes abroad for postgraduate education. He leaves behind a staid and traditional family profoundly challenged by the Maoist rebellion that flourished briefly in the 1960s. This movement attracts and ultimately destroys the younger brother. The novel’s social material is informative, but even if one knew all the historic details in advance, Lahiri’s narrative skill could make any tale engrossing. She favors extensive development of character and leisurely unfolding of events, yet manages to build these elements into scenes of stunning emotional power.
Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li
Here again is a story that spans continents. Three friends grapple with the aftermath of a mysterious death that claimed one of their friends in the prime of youth. Two emigrate to America, while the third manages to make a life in Beijing, but all are marked by doubt and a sense of dislocation. With international and psychological twists on the crime/mystery genre, Li creates a gripping intrigue and moving story. A native of China who now makes her home in the United States, Li has published several acclaimed books of fiction.
** English is so widely spoken in our day and age, there are more writers around the world working in the language than ever before. With so many unusual stories to choose from, don’t let 2014 come to a close without picking up at least one new book by a woman! (A version of this post first appeared on the lovely blog SHELF PLEASURE. I remain grateful for that opportunity!) **