thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Hit the Books: Five Feminist Novels to Read Posthaste

In books, class, feminism, race, social justice, violence on October 3, 2014 at 6:32 am

Girls Like Giants contributors put our heads together to recommend a few of the best books we’ve read in recent times. What’s on your reading list?

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s searing portrait of life before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), follows the narratives of three radically different characters—the beautiful and upper class Olanna, the houseboy turned child soldier Ugwu, and the white British expat and journalist Richard. There is neither a singular narrator nor narrative but rather a switching back and forth between these characters’ various perspectives, a literary move which heeds her call for the necessity of multiple narratives. As a result, we witness the war and its attendant violence from the perspective of each character. For instance, we see rape as a tool of war twice: once in a threat made against Olanna by a soldier and then in Ugwu’s own horrific participation—after he is conscripted into the army—in a gang rape of a young bartender. In Adichie’s novel there is neither safety nor cover from the casual and everyday violence of warf. And there is no simple resolution to its lasting its scars as it reaches into the depths of our lives. Before the war, there was happiness, fun, and radical politics—the latter embraced and touted by Olanna’s husband, a university professor. Yet, as Adichie makes clear, embracing revolutionary politics is far afield from the masculinized violence and terror of war. Her powerful critique reinforces the fact that there are no winners amidst this violence and that the independence sought is sadly never gained, even as lives are lost and irreversibly changed. I can’t recommend this book enough. From Adichie’s eloquent writing to her formal innovation and political critique, Half of a Yellow Sun is by far the most beautiful, difficult, and empathetic novel I’ve read in a long time. – Phoebe B.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

In the last couple years I have read several excellent books. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane delighted me and creeped me out in equal measure. Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, by wunderkind Eleanor Catton, brought magical realism to a sweeping historical western set among whores, charlatans, and opium peddlers in a New Zealand mining town. But without hesitation, the best book I’ve read recently is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This mysterious novel reminds me of the modernist works I love, with a dash of postmodern instability and feminist exploration thrown in for ballast. It focuses on the many lives of Ursula Todd, a person with the gift (or curse) of constantly rebooting back to birth whenever she dies. We follow Ursula through several noteworthy historical happenings, from the Great War and the contemporaneous influenza pandemic to the Blitz in London during World War II. We also see different iterations of Ursula, a person changed ever so evocatively by the various things that happen to her and then alter the trajectory of her life. I won’t give away any more twists or turns but just urge you to snatch up a copy of Life After Life as soon as possible. It’s smart and entertaining and absolutely ideal for delving into during blustery autumn weather. – Sarah S.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

Hello, would you like to read a book written so ferociously that you can only imagine the author typed it up while she was factually on fire? OF COURSE YOU WOULD. This is my read-it-and-freak-out pick. Okay, here’s the set-up: we’re in a poor neighborhood in post-World War II Naples. We’ve got our narrator, a kid named Elena, who happens to share the same name as author Elena Ferrante, which by the way is not her real name—the author’s, that is. She’s anonymous because that’s what writerly danger-bombs do. Anyway, book-Elena is best frenemies with Lila, who both is your classic bad kid (throws Elena’s doll into a loan shark’s dark basement, slings ink at her classmates) and a genius autodidact. As the smartest students in their class, the two girls cleave to each other, pushing each other forward and punishing one another too. “What you do, I do,” Elena promises Lila, meaning it as both a vow of loyalty and as warning. But when they reach middle school, the girls’ paths diverge: Elena’s parents agree to let her continue her education, while Lila’s family pulls her out. As the girls pursue very different lives, their feelings for one another fluctuate but remain fervent. They’ve poured themselves into each other, performed that kind of young-girl soul-swapping that can’t be undone. Now no matter how antagonistic they may feel toward one another, they can’t help but value each other’s opinions above those of everybody else. There is no way I can do justice to this book, particularly in so short a space. So I will just say thank god this is just the first in a series of four, because I have never read anything so intensely honest about women’s inner lives and friendships. I accept that the series may come to a conclusion someday. But the world Ferrante has created? It does not end. – Sarah Todd

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Internet queen Roxane Gay’s gripping debut novel tells the story of Miri, a woman who is kidnapped, raped and tortured over the course of 13 days after going to visit her parents in Haiti. Eventually Miri is released into a new kind of darkness. This book is about race and poverty and how fragile the connections of love and family may prove to be when they are tested; about men who hate women and hurt them in order to feel powerful; about the crime of dehumanization. Most of all it’s about survivors. The scenes of sexual violence are uncompromisingly brutal. I could hardly read them, which is as it should be. Gay’s confident storytelling helps carry the reader through the most difficult passages; her language feels so pure that it seems you could clink a finger against it and hear a sound ring out that fills the whole room. – Sarah Todd

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, Liana Finck

This warm-hearted graphic novel about Jewish immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York is impossibly winning and will also make you want a bialy. Finck adapts a series of interwoven narratives from a real-life advice column that ran in the Yiddish newspaper The Forward over a hundred years ago. Most of the letter-writers’ problems stem from their transitory position between the Old Country and the new. A cantor confesses he’s lost his faith; a woman suspects that her neighbor has stolen the watch that her family pawns for food during lean times; a young newlywed fears that she’s a bad person for feeling less than grateful when her disorganized community presents her and her new husband with 52 down pillows and 38 lamps. Book-ending these vignettes is dialogue between the novel’s present-day narrator and the ghost of The Forward’s editor, Abraham Cahan, who comforts the letter-writers with common sense advice. If you only hug one book today, make it be this one. It even includes an illustrated recipe for sorrel soup just like Cahan’s wife used to make: I can’t wait to try it. – Sarah Todd

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