Contemporary female authors you should be reading
Ten contemporary novels and memoirs by women writers that you should be reading.
When I was challenged to come up with a list of books by female contemporary writers, it was a lot of hard work to contain that list to ten books alone. Women are so prolific when it comes to creating literature; we are responsible for so much great work that is out there. But this list, coming so soon after the passing of Toni Morrisson, feels like a celebration of women’s writing. So please forgive me for only giving you ten contemporary works; I promise I will continue this list in an upcoming instalment of book recommendations.
Marlena is a novel about love, addiction, and loss. Centred around two teenage girls in a rural community in Michigan, the book follows the lives of fifteen-year-old Cat, and her friend and neighbour, Marlena, who, at fifteen is already addicted to pills. The girls turn their desolate little town into a playground, and Cat catalogues a series of firsts: first cigarette, first kiss, first drink, and so on, while Marlena’s addiction gets worse until she dies, drowning in six inches of icy water in the woods. Cat is haunted by Marlena’s memory as she grows up and moves away and must eventually learn to forgive herself if she is to truly move on.
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter attends a fancy suburban prep school, but her home life is very different. She lives in a poor neighbourhood and her best friend is Khalil. Her life is upended by Khalil’s death at the hands of a white police officer, shot dead while unarmed, and witnessed by Starr. She is the only one who really knows what happened that fateful night and even as some people try to smear Khalil’s name by claiming he was a drug dealer, and others take to the streets to protest his death, Starr has to decide how much she can truly say about what went down because she knows that whatever she says will put her family, her community, and herself at risk.
It takes two to make a relationship and a marriage, and Lotto’s and Mathilde’s marriage – envied by all their friends – is no exception. But underneath the mellow surface of their marriage, there are complicated things that tie them together, secrets that nobody else knows. In this novel, Groff examines the seemingly perfect relationship between the two over the course of twenty-four years, and we come to understand that not everything is as it seems.
Nina Riggs was thirty-seven years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Initially a small spot, the mother of two was told a year later that her cancer was terminal. This hauntingly beautiful memoir about living every single day when death occupies the same room is poignant and loving and honest. She examines the question of what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time and touches upon marriage, motherhood, friendship, family, and memory in this achingly brilliant memoir that is disarmingly funny, beautifully written, and incredibly painful. In the end, this is a book that urges us all to live well and to never lose sight of all the important things that truly make up a life.
Jende, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, is desperate to provide a better life for himself, his wife Neni, and their six-year-old son. The whole family is thrilled when Jende gets a job as a chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark is an employer who demands loyalty and discretion and Jende is eager to make a good impression. In the meantime, Clark’s wife Cindy offers Neni a job in their summer house at the Hamptons. With both Jende and Neni working for the Edwards family, they can finally see their American dream slowly becoming a reality. But then the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers; Jende is desperate to keep his job, but his marriage to Neni is falling apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni have to make an impossible choice.
"I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can't have it all." Thirty-eight-year-old Ariel Levy leaves on a reporting trip to Mongolia; she is pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful on her own terms. A month later, she was none of those things. Levy’s memoir details the story of how she built an unconventional life and then watched it fall apart with mind-numbing speed; her story of resilience in the face of the collapse of her life is a reminder that when things fall apart, things can eventually fall back together again.
This is a memoir about Bechdel’s fraught relationship with her father, Bruce Bechdel, English teacher, and owner and operator of the family business, a funeral home which Bechdel and her siblings refer to as ‘Fun home’. Years after coming out as a lesbian, Bechdel learns that her father is also gay. But he is dead within a few weeks of this revelation, leaving behind a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve. The book is cleverly written, with a gothic feel, and with current events juxtaposing with diary entries that take the reader back in time.
On September 9th, 1971, a group of 1300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, protesting years of mistreatment and neglect. They held correctional officers and civilian employees hostage, even as they negotiated better terms and improved living conditions. On September 13th, the state abruptly ended talks and sent in hundreds of heavily armed state troopers and corrections officers to retake the prison. In the ensuing melee, thirty-nine men were killed, hostages as well as prisoners, and over a hundred badly injured. In the weeks that followed, corrections officers and troopers brutally retaliated against the prisoners. In the decades that followed, no officer or trooper was charged with murder or human rights abuses. Rather, the state of New York prosecuted only the prisoners and failed to provide the necessary support to the hostage survivors, or the families of the men who had been killed. In this book, Heather Ann Thompson attempts to shed new light on one of the most important civil rights uprisings from the last century, exploring every aspect from the perspectives of everyone involved, and using material that has only recently become available, including information that was never released to the public in the past.
Moshfegh’s first short story collection is full of incredibly human protagonists; they eat too much candy, drink until they’re sick, develop meth addictions for kicks, and have sex with people they despise. Although the stories are startling, they are also laugh-out-loud funny at times, and always dangerous and deeply unsettling. Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in some way or the other, and their lives are claustrophobic and fetid. The entire book is a master class on humanity and the common things that tie us together. Moshfegh is an incredible storyteller who manages to infuse the bizarre with a voice that is filled with warmth and kindness, simply because behind every broken story is a human who is desperate to be loved.
“Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.” Seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner is mourning her mother’s recent suicide, and she takes up with the pastor’s son, twenty-one-year-old Luke Sheppard, a handsome former football player whose injury has reduced him to waiting tables. It’s summer and it’s not serious until the pregnancy happens. Nadia hides her pregnancy from everyone, including her God-fearing best friend Aubrey. Choices are made that they must all stick to, and eventually, they are all three of them adults, and beholden to the choices they made that summer, haunted by the question of ‘what if’, and living with a sense of whether the road not taken can be more powerful than the experience itself.