I read a lot of novels, most of which would be classified as literary fiction or science fiction (and often both). After a period in my twenties when I pretty much only read books by women — I think of that as my “how to be a woman” phase — I have progressively broadened my reading habits and tastes. At a certain point it just got more interesting to read books by people whose life experiences differ significantly from my own.
That’s why I felt a little sad to read an interview with Philip Roth, one of my favorite gentleman novelists, not long before he died. In that interview, Roth mentioned a dozen books he had recently read, only one of which was written by a woman. (A second was translated by a woman.) Admittedly, Roth has come in for plenty of feminist criticism over the years, so maybe I should not have been surprised. But his American Pastoral is one of my most beloved books, so I was surprisingly disappointed to discover that actually, we lady writers didn’t figure much in his own reading habits. (Unless this dozen is somehow strangely atypical, and he usually lounged around reading Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood.)
I shared my disappointment on Facebook, and a friend asked me to recommend some female authors for those who’d like to broaden their reading habits. It’s a challenge I loved, in part because I always enjoy recommending books, but also because it got me to reflect on my own reading habits. (It turns out that even though I think I read a lot of books by writers of color and queer authors, it’s not as many as I thought — at least not in the context of my entire Goodreads history — and they are mostly by gay men and men of color.)
As I put together the list, I tried to think of books by women that reminded me of the work of celebrated male authors, or have some angle that might particularly appeal to the geeky and cerebral men I know, as well as books that might feel really new and thought-provoking to gentlemen who mostly read books by other men.
In case you’re trying to figure out whether my literary guidance is likely to work for you, here are a few of my favorite male authors: Kurt Andersen, David Mitchell, Richard Powers, Caryl Phillips, Neal Stephenson, Ian McEwan, Stephen McCauley, Michael Cunningham, John Irving, Greg Egan, P.G. Wodehouse, Michael Chabon, Douglas Coupland, and of course, Philip Roth. (Or you can look at my Goodreads profile for even more of my faves.)
OMG, I’m writing a blog post about lady novelists, and I just began it with a long list of (almost all) white guys. Sigh. OK, onto the womenfolk!
Regeneration by Pat Barker The first book in a brilliant trilogy about WWI and its aftermath.
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif An American journalist travels to Egypt, where she uncovers her English great-grandmother’s romance with a 19th century Egyptian nationalist. Very romantic, and a fascinating glimpse into early movements for Arab independence.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver A boy comes of age in the shadow of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera with a side order of Leon Trotsky.
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald A multi-generational family melodrama set in turn-of-the-century (19th/20th) Nova Scotia.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson A well-written life story with a ripple of sci-fi and alternate history, since the narrator lives one life over and over…giving her a chance to intervene in the course of WWII.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel A compelling and atmospheric account of the relationship between Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII. It’s a great novel for anyone who enjoys political or historical fiction: I couldn’t put it down, and it gave me a visceral sense of life in the 16th century, unlike anything I’d ever imagined.
Euphoria by Lily King A fictionalized version of Margaret Mead’s anthropological research in Samoa, this is a total page-turner with LGBT themes.
Possession by A.S. Byatt Two contemporary academics uncover the relationship between a pair of Victorian poets. Great for academic, poetry or literature nerds.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton A quasi-mystery set in 19th century New Zealand, and winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver A family of American missionaries lives through the turbulence of the Belgian Congo in the 1960s.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett A famous soprano is performing at the embassy of a South American country when it’s taken hostage by terrorists. Based on the Lima Crisis, this book won the Orange Prize and the Pen/Faulkner. It’s not (really) a thriller — think of it as a combo between political/historical drama and psychological/interior narrative.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld A fictionalized version of Laura Bush’s life story, hinging on a high school accident that killed a classmate. Weirdly fascinating.
The Submission by Amy Waldman What if the design for the 9/11 memorial had been selected by a blind jury — and that jury ended up choosing a design by an Arab-American? A great read for anyone pondering the impact of 9/11 on race relations in America, as well as for artists and architects.
Dystopian and science fiction
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel This novel braids together the life stories of people affected by a massive pandemic, skipping back and forth between their pre- and post-pandemic lives. If you’ve ever wondered how you’d fare in the midst of a total social collapse — or if you like reflecting on what makes people more or less resilient — you’ll find this deeply resonant.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich A near future feminist dystopia told from the perspective of an indigenous women raised by white hippies. Totally absorbing, extraordinarily insightful, not quite as traumatic as The Handmaid’s Tale, and I suspect even more meaningful for folks who know enough about Catholicism to grok all the religious references I totally missed.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin I am not a fantasy person, but Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is fantasy for sci-fi people. Yes, its premise (which is too delicious for me to spoil) technically puts it in the fantasy genre, but the books’ what-if scenario and exploration of big-picture social issues will remind you of the best dystopian sci-fi. All three books won their respective Hugos (for the best science fiction or fantasy novel of the year). A must-read for sci-fi fans.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler A young African-American woman makes her way in a post-collapse America that looks all-too familiar: it’s facing a charismatic right-wing political leader running on the slogan, “Make America Great Again”. (Yes, really.) Read this, then move onto its page-turning sequel, The Parable of the Talents.
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh In the not-too-distant future, America is a Chinese colony…and one in which it’s damn tough to be gay.
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood Part one of a dystopian trilogy in which social collapse has its roots in bioengineering. If you read dystopian fiction this is a must: It offers a compelling vision of a deeply divided society, and what happens when that society goes into life-threatening crisis.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin A leftie sci-fi utopia that explores big-picture questions about social equality through a page-turning story of a planetary rebel. It won several major sci-fi awards and is a must-read SF classic.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie Part one of a brilliant and readable trilogy focusing on the relationship between humanity and A.I. in a galactic conflict. It won the Hugo and Nebula awards (among others) so it’s essential for any sci-fi fan.
He, She and It by Marge Piercy A woman befriends a cyborg in a free Jewish city-state that lives in precarious balance among the corporate states that now control most of the world. One of my longtime favorites.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers The first two books in a trilogy are a must for my fellow space and AI sci-fi nerds; I just loved them so much. Long Way addresses all the messy aspects of space travel that Star Trek neatly elides, like what happens if you take members of species with very different cultures and physiologies, and then lock them in a tiny tin can for months at a time. Long Way delves deep into what it actually means for humans and AIs to interact, and is also profoundly insightful on the fluid nature of gender. Sadly the third book in the trilogy reads like a kind of didactic footnote that maps out all the world-building Chambers didn’t quite work into her narratives in books one and two, so I can’t really recommend it.
Autonomous by Analee Newitz People who need to read this book: (1) Sci-fi nerds who are ready for some biotech dystopia, as a change from all the AI dystopia, (2) Trans and gender non-conforming nerds who would like to see themselves in sci-fi lit, please, (3) People who live in Vancouver and want to read the most fantastic vision for the future of Richmond that you could hope to find, and (4) Any sci-fi/genre reader who loves a novel that combines a good, engrossing story line with genuinely interesting ideas about the future.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger Think of this as a time-traveling romance that delves into the paradoxes at the heart of time travel. The movie didn’t begin to do it justice: The characters are still with me, years after I read the book.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue A family of Cameroonian immigrants make their way in New York — in part through a complicated relationship with a white Lehman Brothers exec and his wealthy family. I read this not long after reading Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall, which I did not especially like, but since that book also featured Lehman-style money men, I couldn’t help reading Mbue’s wealthy characters as if they were right out of Hawley’s novel.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich I read this book close to twenty years ago but it’s stayed with me. It’s the story of a Chippewa family in North Dakota, spanning several decades and generations.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler This one of those “the less you know the better” books. As in, don’t read the book cover or google it, because it will spoil a key reveal that comes well into the book. A non-spoiler summary: It’s about a woman grieving the sister she lost as a child, so don’t read if that’s a trigger. Otherwise, read it, because it is wonderful and very much not your usual family psychodrama.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki A novelist off the coast of British Columbia finds the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese-American girl living in Tokyo. I loved the inner narrative — the diary — so much, but also had a soft spot for the enclosing story (in part due to its setting!)
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie This novel about a Nigerian woman navigating life in America is beautiful and compassionate and fascinating; the parts of the story that take place in Nigeria were even more compelling. A wonderful, engrossing, revelatory read.
A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson The writer Mona Simpson is Steve Jobs’ biological sister; they met as adults. (Jobs was adopted as a baby.) This novel about a tech superstar reads as a re-imagining of her real-life brother’s story.
All I Love and Know by Judith Frank A gay American man suddenly becomes the guardian of his deceased sister’s Israeli children. It’s about parenthood, the complexity of gay relationships and sexuality, family neuroses and of course, the tension between Israeli and Jewish American identity.
Love and friendship
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff The story of a marriage between two unusual and unforgettable characters, Fates and Furies is one of those novels that left me feeling bereft when it ended.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams This novel about a young Jamaican-British women with a truly disastrous romantic life kind of broke my heart and then pieced it back together. It’s a very compelling picture of how self-destructive people can be, but it’s also got one of the most lovable narrator-protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. Funny, triggering, sad and also redemptive.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer This novel follows a group of friends from summer camp to midlife. If you’re wondering what the hell happened to your life and where the years went, it will probably plunge you into an existential depression. If you’re kind of grappling with the experience of mid-life and wondering how other people navigate that process, it’ll be perfect for you.
A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff A group of Oberlin alums navigate love and friendship in the years after graduation. For my fellow Obies there are some lovely evocative tidbits.
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud This was for me the quintessential novel of 9/11. It captured what life was like before that moment, and then, how it changed our world. But it’s not really about 9/11: It’s a relationship novel, first and foremost, and a thoughtful one. I found it engrossing and evocative.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern I’m not usually one for magical realism or fantasy, but I fell into the world of this novel and couldn’t devour it fast enough. It’s the story of two magicians who are trained as rivals, and the complicated relationship between them. Bewitching.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh Ever since I read this laugh-out-loud novel about a young woman who handles her depression by drugging herself into a year-long stupor, I’ve been on a quest for novels with similar combinations of humor, insight and compelling characterization.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July If you are the kind of person who avoids books with trigger warnings, let me just give you ALL the warnings. This book pretty much covers everything that could possibly trigger anyone: domestic abuse, weird sex stuff, problematic race stuff, crazy gender and sexual identity stuff…really, everything. It is also utterly memorable and strange and insightful and funny and definitely the source of the best sexual fantasy I have ever read — in fact it may be the best sex fantasy in all of English-language literature. No, I am not overselling it.
Goodbye Without Leaving by Laurie Colwin This was the first novel I ever read by Colwin, and it made her one of my favorite novelists; I think I’ve since read every single one of her wonderfully sweet, kindhearted books. Goodbye tells the story of a white suburban woman who can’t quite let go of her fixation with the time she spent, years ago, as a backup singer in a black band. It’s been twenty-five years since I read it (I guess I’m due for a re-read!) but I always thought it would make a great musical.
Startup by Doree Shafrir I can’t resist a novel set in my own familiar world of tech nerdery and media, so I had to read this one. Considering how much of the tech world gets narrated by bros, it was delightful to read a take that comes very much from a woman’s point of view. Fun, accurate, occasionally devastating.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton Edith Wharton is my very favorite novelist, and I think this is my very favorite of her novels. The thing about Wharton is that so many of her novels turned on the way women were imprisoned by their gender roles — but unlike Austen, I never have the feeling that the problems would just go away if people had a direct conversation, already.
Middlemarch by George Eliot I finally read Middlemarch because I really wanted to read Rebecca Mead’s memoir My Life in Middlemarch and figured I needed to read the novel first. I read it on Kindle, which took EONS, and took that as a personal failure: Maybe I just take a long time to parse older turns of phrase? Then I started Mead’s book and discovered that Middlemarch is something like 700 pages; the length wasn’t obvious to me in ebook form! Even though I much prefer reading fiction on paper, I’m really glad I read this one electronically, because that allowed me to highlight and save all the extraordinarily well-drawn observations that constitute one of the book’s chief pleasures, like “The difficult task of knowing another soul is not for young gentlemen whose consciousness is chiefly made up of their own wishes.” I mean, how great is that line? And there are a ZILLION more. There is a reason people are obsessed with this book.
Emma by Jane Austen I was late to the Austen club because I found Pride and Prejudice incredibly annoying when I read it at age 15, but that really tells you why you shouldn’t trust 15-year-olds to judge classic novels. I have read and loved many Austen novels, but Emma is probably my favorite, because the protagonist is so utterly endearing. If you’ve never read Austen, this is a great place to start.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf It’s been so long since I read Mrs. Dalloway that I can’t remember why I adored it, but I remember being obsessed with it as an undergrad, even though I’ve never really taken to other books by Woolf. Time for me to revisit it!
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte More than twenty-five years ago, I was a chapter or two into Jane Eyre when an older colleague leaned over and said, “You know — — — , don’t you?” That blank was a massive spoiler, and I still bear a grudge: After all, there are only so many classic novels by women, and this guy ruined one of the top few! In fairness, he was genuinely surprised I didn’t know the book’s big reveal — and when you think of it, how cool is it that a 19th-century novel could still surprise a 20th-century reader? It really is a marvelous book, so if you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat. Just be sure you read it at home, so nobody is tempted to spoil it for you.
Bonus: Great novels by men of color
I actually started this post almost two years ago, and then set it aside when I became daunted by just how many books I wanted to share! I was inspired to return to it when another Facebook friend asked for reading suggestions beyond the usual white guys, so I decided to finish the job.
In the interest of addressing his question, I thought I’d extend my original mission by also including a quick list of some of my favorite novels by men of color. It’s crazy how often I see “great books” lists that should actually be labeled “great books by straight cis white men”, so here are some more great reads that will get you out of that very limited worldview.
Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips This extraordinary novel explores the legacy of slavery, told through a series of linked stories spanning generations of a single family. It’s one of my all-time favorite novels, so I’ve since read most of Phillips’ other books, but this one has stayed at the top of the list.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty A novel about an African-American man whose sociologist father treated his child as an experiment in the impact of racism. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and also, I don’t think there is a single paragraph in this book that I’d feel comfortable reading aloud as a white person.
American War by Omar El Akkad Imagine a future in which the South once again secedes from America — but this time, over its commitment to sticking with the petroleum economy. Brilliant.
Back Channel by Stephen L. Carter A smart, fun thriller that places a young African-American woman at the heart of the Cuban missile crisis.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee A beautiful, tragic, and all too believable dystopia that extrapolates the implications of our current levels of income inequality.
How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu A weird and delightful novella that simultaneously explores the complexity of father-son relationships and the nature of space-time.
Nexus by Ramez Naam Book 1 of a sci-fi/thriller trilogy that I just devoured. It’s that most elusive creature, the page-turner that is actually smart and well-written.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro A dystopian coming-of-age novel whose title might as well be its promise to the reader: More than a decade after reading this book, it still haunts me, and shapes the way I see the world.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid A short and unflinching look at the racism unleashed on Muslim Americans after 9/11.
Next on my reading list
Somewhat ironically, I publish this at the end of a year when my reading has dramatically slowed: Thanks to my knitting addiction, I now consume most books in audio form, which takes a lot longer than reading on paper.
Reading fewer books has me thinking more about what I read, and especially, about who I don’t read. It’s been years since I made much effort to read books by my fellow Canadians, and I really feel like it’s time to turn that around — and in particular, to seek out books by indigenous Canadians (recommendations welcome!) It feels kind of weird that I’m so obsessed with novels and TV shows that give me insight into the experience of African Americans, and yet have done little to immerse myself in the stories of indigenous Canada.
I’m not great about writing reviews of my latest reads and listens on Goodreads, but I am religious about rating every book I finish, just so I can remember what I’ve read. If you’d like to explore more books I’ve loved, here’s where you’ll find them: