The Feminist Book List for February

I keep an old New Yorker cover framed on a bookshelf; it’s an Edward Koren drawing, one of his goofy unspecified animals standing up and holding a giant sword and a giant pen. Which is mightier? Depends on your perspective.

We all know the old synecdochal saw “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and we believe it, not because swords don’t often topple pens (alas, alas, they do)—but because pens last longer. History favors victors, but it gets written by survivors, and feminists are survivors. We have to be. Otherwise, our stories would never get told.

Each month here at ROAR I’ll highlight 7-10 books by women, fiction and nonfiction, that speak to feminist concerns. The titles are presented alphabetically by author and the list is by no means comprehensive. Please share your picks in the Comments!

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

by Erica Dunbar

Oh, those morally upstanding Founding Fathers. They’re great until you scratch the surface of their Upright Citizen facades, maybe even with a coin bearing their likeness, and discover that they are like all power-mad people: Willing to use others in pursuit of their own happiness. George and Martha Washington were all sweetness and apple pie to their equals—but to their enslaved servants, they were fanatical despots. Erica Dunbar, Blue and Gold Professor of Black Studies and History at the University of Delaware, shows what happened when one black woman dared to defy her masters and attempt a free life. Eye-opening, scrupulously researched, and a must-read for Williamsburg fanatics.


Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Pars, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London

by Lauren Elkin

The question of how women negotiate public space is complicated—Should they be allowed to do so by themselves? Should they be clothed in hoop skirts? Hobble skirts? Burqas and/or hijabs? Where are they going, and what do they intend to do when they arrive? You’d think the average women, in search of fresh air and perspective, were a bomb about to detonate from the amount of consideration given to her being when in public. Lauren Elkin’s new book shows how women walking alone in cities actually feel, and it’s a breath of fresh air, proving that these flanêuses actually want nothing more than to be allowed the same rights and privileges as their male counterparts. Yes, let that stop you in your tracks for a moment.

A Separation: A Novel

by Katie Kitamura

You heard it here first: This slim novel is going to win a lot of 2017 literary prizes. That’s because Kitamura (Gone to the Forest, The Longshot) creates suspense with elegant prose instead of far-fetched plot devices. Her story of how a marriage unravels and how a family grieves has more to do with highbrow literary fiction than it does with airport paperbacks, yet it still manages to be as compulsively and enjoyably readable as the latter. An unnamed narrator leaves London for Greece, where her husband is camped out at a luxury resort. What she finds there is unsettling, and things become increasingly unnerving, awful reminders that women are still subordinate in too many places.

Dear Friend from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

by Yiyun Li

Li’s novels can be bleak: Kinder Than Solitude, for example, follows a group of friends that make Donna Tartt’s characters in The Secret History look like Mouseketeers. However, what makes Li’s novels important is that this bleakness is in service of understanding human psychology, and her new book, written during two years in which she battled major depression, has the same intent. Dear Friend isn’t a sweet epistolary memoir, rather it’s a writer’s challenge to herself as a reader. Which books matter most to Li? Why? What have they done for her lately? Can literature sustain a life and, if so, what kind of a life will that be? At one point readers are left wondering what comes next, the only real clue the writer’s name on the book jacket. Be warned: This is true, powerful stuff about mental illness.

Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

by Megan Marshall

Attention, poets: If you don’t want your younger colleagues fitting together biographies from your letters, you should burn them all before your dotage, and probably ask people to whom you sent letters to return them to you, as well. But thank goodness the esteemed “Miss Bishop” didn’t do this, because then we wouldn’t have Megan Marshall’s wonderful new book that uncovers darker and more passionate facets of the great poet’s life. The recently discovered letters Marshall uses included some from Bishop to her psychiatrist, others from Bishop to lovers, including the one who would read from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web at Bishop’s memorial service, not knowing Bishop has pronounced it “AWFUL.”

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression

by Daphne Merkin

If Merkin is “this close to happy,” then reading her book this close to understanding the exquisite torture major depression wreaks on its sufferers (yours truly included): Depressives who are treatment compliant but still, well, depressed, feel like children who must wait to enter a deliciously blue swimming pool until their lunch has been digested. This close is still too far, and hearing Merkin describe her truly lifelong suffering (her first hospitalization is in first grade) will make readers wonder what neuroscientists, brain surgeons, and Big Pharma have been doing with their time and money if nothing closer to a solution has been found for people like Daphne Merkin, who has finally achieved a state of “all-right-ness.” Is that enough?

Pachinko: A Novel

by Min Jin Lee

You may have seen the modifier “Dickensian” applied to this big-buzz novel and I am here to tell you it’s accurate. Author Lee may be the first Asian-American woman to pen the Great Korean Novel, but it’s really the Great Diaspora Novel, as protagonist Sunjun moves from Korean to Japan and then to the United States. From its beginnings in 1910 to its resolution in 1989, Pachinko combines the sweep of a 1970s potboiler with the characters of a Tolstoy epic with the immersive feeling of Marilynne Robinson. Yes, it’s really that good, and unlike the potboiler, it also grapples with the cruelties and inequalities that face both these particular immigrants, and all immigrants everywhere who search for better lives. Don’t miss.

A Book of American Martyrs: A Novel

by Joyce Carol Oates

Not since The Cider House Rules has there been a truly wise American novel about the issue that really seems to separate us: Abortion. Two Ohio families, the Dunphys and the Voorheeses, live on opposite sides of the pro-life/pro-choice divide until a Dunphy kills a Voorhees, and their fates become linked forever. In the hands of a lesser writer, and really, any other writer would be lesser in this case, the story might become a bit maudlin. It’s not easy to avoid sentimentality when talking about rights of the living versus the unborn, but Oates, prodigiously prolific still, manages to carve something complete and important from this material.


Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists

by Donna Seaman

I love that art critic Seaman has taken a dismissive and sometimes pejorative tag, “Identity Unknown,” and used it as the title of her book that is inclusive and celebratory. The seven artists she profiles are Gertrude Abercrombie, Joan Brown, Ree Morton, Mailou Jones, Lenore Tawney, Christina Ramberg, and Louise Nevelson. Not only do we learn about each woman’s life and milieu (unfortunately, the latter, even when sparkling, was often the thing that defined them as “unknown;” their brasher male compatriots took up all the room in the photo captions), we learn about their callings and how each defined herself as a creative and as a visual artist. These definitions are surprising, and a testament to the rediscovery herein.



The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

by Florence Williams

As I type, I’m recovering from a bad bout of bronchitis and am sitting in bed near an open window. Fortunately, it’s nearly 70 degrees where I am. . . The point is, all of us know that fresh air and sunshine are good for our health. In her new book The Nature Fix, Florence Williams postulates that air, sun, trees, rocks, rivers, oceans, and more are not just good for our physical health but essential to our cognitive well being, too. Ecotherapy, “forest healing,” and rafting to heal PTSD are not just new-age ideas; there’s a strong scientific basis for how and why exposure to the natural world can heal the brain, psyche, and perhaps even soul. Feminists, head for the hills! Not to flee, but to heal. Come back strong, so we can #resistandpersist.

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