Thursday, January 3, 2013

Classic Reads Bloghop

Books are personal.  I’ve written about this before.  My favorite “classics” may not sing against the same inner chords as those that resonate with yours.  And they might not be found in the cannon that every high school English chair reaches for.  You may not see them repeated on the weathered lists of one-hundred-best-books-of-all-time.  But those offerings are also sorely lacking in women’s voices, contemporary YA and anything that can be accused of sentimentality.  Well, sentimentality is underrated (I’m going to just say it loud and proud – thanks, Chicken Soup for the Soul. We all need a tearjerker about the good in humankind now and then.)  And YA can contain some of the most brilliant critical analysis of society (hello HungerGames.)  While yeah, (or yee ha!) women are capable of writing stories as well as men.  Unfortunately, more often than not, these aren’t the stories chosen by the dudes who compile those hallowed lists.  I give you the 1998 New York Times listof 100 Best Novels

I’ll save you some time and tell you that fully eight of the books on this list of 100 were written by women.  Also, Edith Wharton appears on the list twice.  In total then, there are only seven female authors.  This particular list was compiled in 1998, by the editorial board of Modern Library, which at that time, was made up of nine men and one woman.  Since then, they’ve added a few heavy hitting female writers like Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oats but it is still heavy with male perspectives (eleven men to six women.)

It probably won’t surprise you that historically; men have been in charge of curricula, journalism and boards like that of the modern library.  So perhaps the lack of showing by women writers is due to the fact that few books by women authors are assigned to be read in school (so those guys never read them) or are recommended by these lists because they were never read by the guys who write the lists (ouch. head. hurting.)  

In the past, women weren’t viewed as real writers or even capable of true intellect.  After all, Sophocles said, “Silence is an ornament for women,” Napolean wrote that, “women are nothing but machines for producing children,” and Neitzsche dictated, “When a woman becomes a scholar there is usually something wrong with her sexual organs.”

So maybe it’s a basic disbelief in women’s worth or intellect but perhaps a second challenge is that stories written by women aren’t usually the ones that become personal to men.

I remember my first reading of a “classic” written by a woman.  It was, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  I was a junior in high school (pause there – I was a junior in high school before I read anything by a female author and even in this book, the narrator is a male voice.)  I’ll admit it was no home run.  I struggled with the novel.  Symbolism in a jar of pickles?  A sledding hill of doom?  But after all these years, I still remember the haunting loneliness that Edith Wharton conjured in the character of Mattie.  That book unlike Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby or anything by Shakespeare, stayed with me the way no book written with a male perspective had.

Here is my list of personal “classics.”  These are the books that made the leap from great read to must read because they produced an inner tune that ultimately shaped who I am as a writer and as a person. 

The Awakening by Kate Chopin: In college, I took my first course that focused solely on women.  The class was small, the instructor no nonsense and my classmates were all women.  We talked about everything!  No topic was off limits.  But when we read Kate Chopin’s book, it was the message of freedom, no matter the cost, that changed my life and resulted in my changing majors from music performance to social work.

Liar’s Club by Mary Karr:  This book, part autobiography and part poetry, made me laugh and cry as I read it.  I’d never known a book before that could be so raw and honest about childhood.  It is the reason I first began writing stories.

Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos: A book about retaining worth after being broken came at the right time for me.  It contained the message I needed to hear and, in a way, saved my life.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly:   This is a YA historical fiction.  It’s funny, factual and the main character is a girl I fell in love with.  It’s also unique in terms of plot development and structure and kept me hooked while switching from past to present in no careful pattern.  This book influenced my writing and made it clear that a contemporary heroine could be found in historical fiction novels.

Anything by Chris Crutcher:  Within the pages of a Crutcher novel is where you will find the perfect blend of societal critique, humor, heartbreak and sentimentality served up without the obvious frills, which dampen the emotion.  Who says a man can’t write a good story J?

The Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison:  These books are downright milk-out-of-your nose hilarious.  They prove that humor in writing is not only possible but can be as much fun as a night out with your girlfriends.

Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell:  A Picture book, yep.  And maybe worse, a message book.  Too bad, literary snobs!  Sometimes a message is just what you need when your kid (or your inner kid) is weeping over the schoolyard bully, afraid to sing in public or new to a situation.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson:  In this book, every description of an emotion, a setting or a character is a poem.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:  The plot, the humor, the social commentary, the characters…oh so delicious!

The Measure of Our Success by Marion Wright Edelman: This is one of those books that compels you to be a better person.  In the introduction, she writes that service is the rent we pay for being on this planet.  I took this message to heart.  For me, for my family, volunteering to help others is a no-brainer.  You do it or you suffer the crushing self-esteem crisis that follows.  And speaking of self-esteem...

Revolution From Within by Gloria Steinem:  This book has gotten a bad rap since self-esteem became synonymous with imitation syrup and the exploration of our own belly-buttons, but read the book.  Ms. Steinem’s research is based on good science and for women, who are still woefully ignored as competent writers, a regular dose of self-esteem enhancement may be just what we need to get a few more of our stories into schools, booklists and the hearts of readers.


  1. Great list of books by women, many also favorite titles of mine. Happy New Year.

  2. Great post.

    I think it's a shame that women authors are not better represented in history. I'm all for equality between the sexes and think women are just as capable of writing great novels as men are. It's remarkable that the likes of Austen were able to break through as they did and give some true classics to the world.

    Harper Lee has been the most popular author in this hop from the posts I've read. I think there is no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic.