58 Life-Changing Books You’ve Never Heard Of, All Written by Women: An Answer to Thought Catalog

Another list of “great books you’ve never heard of” where just about all the authors are male. And when that is pointed out, the author is quite polite in his response (very nice in fact) but of course, some dipshit troll writes “it’s not the author’s fault that women suck at writing.”

Um, yeah. Well, it’s not women’s fault that men suck at reading, either, is it?

The original list has some very fine books on it, but just as antidote to the idea that are simply no undeservedly obscure lost treasures by women out there, here’s my list, at twice as long as the original just to be emphatic. These books are very good–there aren’t many life-changing books out there by anybody, and while I enjoyed many of the books on the author’s original list, I’m never sure what is meant to be life-changing. What was life-changing to me isn’t going to be to you, but I warn you: if you let yourself read books by women, you might start seeing them as real people.

1. A Severed Head by Irish Murdoch. Actually, just about anything by Iris Murdoch. She is a writer that has fallen into some obscurity after her death, and it’s tragic because she’s the real deal.

2. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. A tightly observed story about a privileged man who finds himself adrift at middle age.

3. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. A slim volume on ubiquitous anti-intellectualism. This one came pretty close to life-changing for me.

4. The complete poems of Sappho. Everybody has heard of Sappho, nobody seems to read her. That is wrong:

He’s equal with the Gods, that man
Who sits across from you,
Face to face, close enough, to sip
Your voice’s sweetness,

And what excites my mind,
Your laughter, glittering.

‘Nuff said mmmkay?

5. Song of Soloman by Toni Morrison. Another one that comes very close to being life-changing for me, and it’s a book that lives undeservedly in the shadow of Beloved.

6. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Families in wartime. This book squishes up your heart. Squish. Didn’t get half the attention it deserved.

7. Requiem by Anna Akhmatova, which is a poem, but you should read the entire collection. Another heart-squisher by a Soviet poet writing under Stalin. A.S. Kline did a beautiful translation.

8. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Another undeservedly obscure writer; this is my favorite.

9. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. Also: a very nice movie was made out of the book, but the book is better, and neither get the attention they merit.

10. An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. A group of actors and, like all of Bandridge’s novels, the darkness of human relationships. Also made into a movie which I have never seen.

11. The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir. I struggled with the Second Sex, but this one is no struggle. French intellectuals, screwing up.

12. Nancy Kress. Beggars in Spain. What happens when rich people are allowed to genetically design their kids. Truly wonderful. This is a series.

13. Octavia Butler. The Parable series, beginning with the parable of the sower. Love. I’m sure not Ms. Butler is obscure, as I hope she is not, but I can’t not list this series of hers since I loved it so.

14. Lan Cao. Monkey Bridge Moving from Vietname to the US, with the clever metaphor for a title. An overlooked gem when it came out.

15. Marie Darrieussecq. My Phantom Husband. What does it mean to recover from a loss when you can’t recognize the loss? A haunting book.

16. Messalina of the Suburbs By E.M. Delafield. Killing off one’s husband in the burbs. Yes, Richard Russo penned a damning critique of the suburbs. Delafield did it decades earlier.

17. Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove. A novel in verse. Graceful and engrossing.

18. Hannah Webster Foster. The Coquette. An epistolary novel.

19. Passing by Nella Larson. Race and gender-bending, losing your identity, and the casual violence directed at women of color.

20. Emma Goldman. My Disillusionment in Russia. Yes, yes, one of the things the American right likes to bang on on about is the American intellectual left’s “fascination” and “excuse-making” with/for the Soviets–but Emma Goldman wasn’t sucked in; she made no excuses, and this book provided early, first-person accounts of ideology gone terribly, terribly wrong. A compelling if turgid read.

21. Jessica Hagedorn The Gangster of Love People may still read Dogeaters in university classes, but Hagedorn is one of those consistently overlooked writers. This one is my favorite of hers.

22. Lorraine Hansberry. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. Few people have heard of Hansberry, but most everybody has heard of her signature play, A Raisin the Sun. This memoir is both funny and angry and deserves to be read and discussed more than it is.

23.Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. Farewell to Manzanar. Growing up in an internment camp, surrounded by very difficult, but very interesting people.

24. Elspeth Huxley, Red Strangers. A funny, but tragic, story of two boys who witness the beginning of European colonial rule in Kenya, with a refreshing perspective on culture.

25. Rona Jaffe. The Best of Everything. A book about young women in 1950s New York. This book spawned a play and a movie, I believe, but it’s seldom discussed now, which is a shame since everybody seems to love Mad Men, and Jaffe was a superb prose stylist.

26. June Jordan, Kissing God Goodbye. In your face poetry.

27. Immgard Keun. A Child of All Nations. A coming of age novel centering on a young adolescent who is smarter and saner than her parents. A terrific book. Also recommend: After Midnight.

28. Sofia Kovalevskaya. Nihilist Girl. A story of a wealthy young woman who wants to change the world, by a woman more famous for her contributions to mathematics than fiction, but I can’t understand the math stuff….]

29. Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Oh, the movie is wonderful in its own way, but the novel is fun and chirpy–just keep in mind it’s a novel of its time.

30. Alison Lurie. Real People. Honestly, just go read anything by Alison Lurie, but Real People is my favorite.

31. Rose Macauley, the Towers of Trebizond. Travel and Christian mysticism. What is not to like? Go read.

32. Olivia Manning. School of Love. Olivia Manning is criminally neglected. If anybody has heard of her, it’s for the Fortunes of War series. This book is less of a commitment and gets you into her sharply observed world. Jerusalem, mid-1940s.

33. Bobbie Ann Mason. In Country. Another book that squishes up your heart. A young girl observes men who have come back from war to a town where their big opportunity is working at a cookie factory. This one is another one that comes so close to my own rural childhood that it was life-changing.

34. Ana María Matute. Fiesta Al Noreste. Everything, but it’s very hard as I am not sure she is translated into English, which is a shame because her stories are wonderful. Fiesta al Noroeste concerns memory, pride, and the loss of a child in a tragic accident.

35. Anne McCaffrey. The Dragonriders of Pern. I hope this series isn’t as forgotten as I suspect it is, but it’s a delightful read.

36. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, The Saddlebag: A Fable for Doubters and Seekers. This. Book. A saddlebag of treasure makes a journey in the cosmopolitan empire of the 19th century. CRIMINALLY overlooked.

37. Gloria Naylor. Mama Day. People still perhaps read The Women of Brewster Place, as they should, but Mama Day gets overlooked, and it shouldn’t. A story about women and magic and islands. Read Linden Hills, too.

38. Margaret Oliphant. He That Will Not When He May. Margaret Oliphant is unfortunately unknown to just about everybody who isn’t a Victorian specialist. This particular novel is wildly funny.

39. Anne Fadiman. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This is unfortunately nonfiction, but if you need insight on pulling your head of your backside as an ‘expert’ who doesn’t listen, this book will cure you, and it does it without being preachy or judgmental. For everybody, it will break your heart. I recently read that Lia Lee passed away last year. Heart. Squish.

40. Mary Renault. The Last of the Wine. Renault fully realizes the world of a boy in Athens.

41 Judith Rossner, Olivia or the Weight of the Past. Rossner penned Waiting for Mr. Goodbar, much better known work, but this a much better novel about a woman working out her identity vis-a-vis her family.

42. Henry Handel Richardson (actually Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. This is a trilogy for people who like big, sweeping sagas in gold-rush Australia.

43. Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute. Set in WWII Montreal, an absolutely wonderful book. Roy deserves far more attention than she gets.

44. Olive Schreiner. The Story of an African Farm. There is much to deplore about this book, but there is also much to praise, particularly about the intimacy of the setting.

45 Christina Stead. The Man Who Loved Children. This is one of those novelists more talked about then read, but it’s a wonderful book about what irresponsible people do to the people around them, and if there is one thing Stead knows how to do, it’s put together a sentence. You can pick up many other books by Stead and not be disappointed.

46.Sojourner Truth. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. She did a lot more than say “Ain’t I A Woman.” Yes, read it because it’s socially important, but read it my god, for the story. James Bond has nothing on this women in terms of adventure.

47. Yvonna Vera. Nehanda. A magical young girl in village who has the power to spark resistance.

48. Dawn Powell. Just about anything, but I like The Tenth Moon.

49. Taslima Nasrin, Lajja=Shame. I need to reread this one, as it’s too murky in my brain, partially because it’s so wretchedly painful to read. I wish the translation were a bit better, but I suspect it’s not an easy translation to do well.

50. Carson McCullers. Reflections of Golden Eye. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter gets all the press, and it really does deserve the attention it gets, but this often-overlooked book strikes me as bizarre, but very readable and quite insightful, read about the miseries of unfulfilled longing.

51. Suzy McKee Charnas. Motherlines. (The Holdfast Chronicles.) I have not read the entire series, as I am impatient with post-apocalyptic novels, but the first novel is excellent and will both entertain you and push you past your comfort zone.

52. Pat Barker. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Ok, Pat Barker does get SOME attention, though not enough, for the Regeneration series, which you should read. But The Man Who Wasn’t There is a good meditation on fathers, and you should read it, too, even though nobody talks about it.

53. Silvia Townsend Warner. Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman. John Updike turned me on to this book with one of his endearingly lovely reviews. Lolly was meant to be a upright spinster, but she instead takes on a demon lover. And it’s awesome.

54. Angela Carter. Nights at the Circus. Sophie is a circus freak, or is she? I hate circuses, but this novel is amazing.

55. Assatta Shakur. Assatta: A Biography. This is probably the first autobiography I ever read where I actually cared about the writer. A stunning book.

56. Elena Garro. First Love and Look for My Obituary. Two novellas from a Mexican novelist whose work seldom seemts to appear in translation, which is maddening.

57. Sia Figiel: They Who Do Not Grieve. I do not understand why more people have not read this novel. How did this novel go uncelebrated? I do not understand. Intergenerational saga about women and their ties to ancestry and place.

58. Hiromi Goto. The Kappa Child. Gorgeous prose about a first generation Japanese woman growing up in Canada and her father’s struggle with his new context.

Economics 101, Reza Aslan and Jesus, and the fall of Rome

Attention conservation notice: Scholars often disagree with each other. That is not evidence that your real-deal experiential knowledge is better’n than all that book larning.

I’m surprised this piece from Salon.com didn’t get more airplay: Econ 101 is killing America by Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind. This is something that I have been wondering around for about 15 years, since I finished off my econ degrees and moved out of the world of econ, which is impossible because econ pretty much rules the world. But if there is one thing a person who studies environmental justice has encountered, it’s some blowhard who wants to lecture you that racism has nothing to do with injustice, it’s just that that those poor people have no money so they live in places with bad environments. And of course it’s just an accident that people of color are also disproportionately poor, etc etc. But once you get past econ 101–the micro class that entirely too many undergraduates take to satisfy general ed requirements because they think it will be ‘useful’–you see all sorts of ways in which poverty and racism can and do work as separate forces, even within constrained paradigm of economics itself.

IOW, once you take more economics after econ 101, you learn that the simplistic supply=demand lines drawn on the board and the elasticities you learn are basic concepts that get much more complicated once you get past hamburgers and robots. The problem, according to Atkinson and Lind (and I agree) is that few people take more than econ 101 and that superficial and misleading summary of the discipline, combined with economists’ race to dominate the policy discourse over all disciplines, means that we wind up with popular support for policy based on what people think are settled questions in the discipline, but are actually way more contested both in theory and in the empirical evidence we have. Of their myths, I think the most important one is Myth #3: that the economy is a market, but not for the reasons they discuss. Sure, yes, there is a lot of non market activity out there. But thinking of economies as markets leads us to the fundamental problems of macro, and this is how you aggregate up from the logic of individuals and firms to understand the resulting collective conditions. That’s a big onion, and there are very smart people working on it, but the idea that markets and economies are interchangeable concepts strikes me as very similar to believing that cities are simply collections of neighborhoods. Certainly neighborhoods are a part of cities, but assuming that’s the whole is likely to lead you wrong.

Those messy points where economists disagree tend to get put away in econ 101 because undergraduates do not like you to say things like “here’s one theory for how things work; here’s another.” They want to know how things work. I’ve read “this professor should just teach the facts about cities and not all that stuff about politics” on my evals roughly a million times: but politics are a fact in cities, that much is clear, and your explanations for what makes cities run have consequences for politics and vice versa. Fact: cities have people and buildings in them, all close together. That would be a short course on the city.

I was thinking about this the other when I happened upon a Wikipedia entry for the Decline of Rome. I’m sure there are problems with this entry, but datum! Look at it! It has a whole listing of the theories that are out there, and while it doesn’t really help you sort through them, it DOES allow the reader to see that there ARE multiple theories. How unexpectedly useful!

My students have been posting this embarrassing FoxNews interview with Reza Aslan conducted by Lauren Green on the show Spirited Debate. The whole thing is a mishegosse; you can see some good commentary and the full video from Asawin Suebsaeng writing for Mother Jones with this link here. There is so much that makes your face hurt here; having been a scholar presented with dumb questions in interviews and struggling to be polite, I feel for Aslan here, and I feel for Green, too, as she’s clearly out of her depth and badly prepared. I’ve heard some whining about how he harps on the fact that he is a PhD, but what else are you going to do when somebody else is harping on the fact that you are a practicing Muslim? The only way to respond is how he responds: I’m more than a practicing Muslim; I’m writing about my area of expertise. The whole thing is embarrassing for everybody; she begins with a simple ad hominem argument: presenting him with the presumption that his writing a book about Jesus because Aslan is Muslim means that Aslan must have some sort of ax to grind. At no point does she address the book’s argument–that because Jesus was subjected to a punishment reserved by the Romans for crimes against the state, the Jesus movement was likely higher profile and more destabilizing to the Republic than other scholars have allowed–which actually isn’t all that radical a departure from the scholarship on the historical figure of Jesus. Then she goes on to say that other scholars debate his findings, as though that debate throws his interpretation immediately into question–but all scholarship works like this, even scholarship in science until the definitive experiment is conducted or the definitive proof is produced.

Irresponsible urbanism and letting Detroit be Detroit for a second

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of urbanists who write about Detroit and how to fix it, or why it should be left to die. It would be nice if we urbanists were useful enough to be able to say to people that urbanists are not doctors, and not even doctors are really like Marcus Welby or House. Cities live and die, yes, in part through policy and planning intervention, but they also transcend those, and over the years I’ve come to think that intentional influence is one of the lesser forces at work on cities–which isn’t to say that intent and working for change is not worth doing. But cities are not like clay on a potter’s wheel, and their material and social form can be guided in some ways. Things in the city can be planned, but citie sare far more than their their plans and the official design for ‘what should happen.’ Cities transcend their markets, their place in larger markets, their society, and their governance as they are constituted of so many things, and that transcendence occurs primarily due to the synergies of all those things. Even if we wanted to pump cities full of morphine to ease their passing, it doesn’t work that way. There are too many other agents at work.

Like the celebrity urbanists that descended upon New Orleans, there just comes a point when helicoptering in with facile comments about what a city should do or be just does not contribute to a positive policy dialogue, but instead creates confusion and a sense of futility. There’s helping, and then there’s carpetbagging, and there’s also just using other people’s misery to promote your work.

I grumped on this blog about Ed Glaeser’s treatment of former Mayor Coleman Young in Triumph of the City. Yes, Coleman Young probably could have and should have done things differently; yeah, education is probably a better local investment in a shrinking place than people movers, and virtually all of those things said in retrospect are only really helpful if those lessons can be applied to reformed practice–not just a bunch of head-shaking. I’m sure Glaeser does mean for his ideas to work as a policy lesson for other areas, but still, it would be nice for all of us outside of Detroit to stop plowing over it for a bit.

I remember saying after the Gabriel Giffords shooting that one of the things I learned about at Virginia Tech after the shootings was, firsthand, how hurtful punditry about gun control or gun rights were in the aftermath of my devastated community. I have since taken the position that people shouldn’t use tragedies like these for political agenda-setting or policy window-opening. They should first help people start healing, then pursue reform–and I’m only really talking about giving people a week or so before you start shouting from atop the graves of their kids. Then, when the Sandy Hook shootings occurred, gun control advocates tried to shame people like me. Well, if NOW isn’t the time to discuss gun control, they said, WHEN IS IT? Wrapped in their outrage and secure in the knowledge they were right, they marched forward, having told idiots like me what’s what about how policy should work.

And then got precisely nowhere with gun control legislation, for all their purportedly morally superior leveraging of other people’s tragedies for political traction.

Yeah, that couldn’t have waited a week or two.

There is a performativity about all this grave-standing and forsenic study, and all these questions about whether cities should live or die, and that’s the part that, in planning, we should think hard about. Well-meaning people can cause harm, even if they don’t mean to. This write up of Richard Florida’s prescriptions around the Detroit from the Alec MacGuinness at the New Republic hits at the heart of the problem. It concerns whose voice gets to stay in the dialogue and whose voices don’t:

After the Atlantic cover story appeared, Florida was a guest on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation. Tessa from Detroit called in: “My neighborhood is really disappearing,” she says. “I would love to hear some comments from your guest about what’s going to happen to my neighborhood. What are his predictions? … Do we get out? Do we stay?”

Florida assured Tessa that Detroit’s plight “is not something I’m particularly happy about.” He told her his wife is from Detroit. And then he told her that his friends who live in Detroit are making it as “freelancers” who “commute on an irregular basis” to work on projects somewhere else. He had recently given a speech to Detroit airport officials, who told him that the airport would remain viable. “That airport provides connective fiber,” he told her. “Finding local employment is going to be a lot harder. So you either have to say, can I commute to work, by plane perhaps, or do I have to look for a place that has a better set of opportunities for me?”

There was no way to know if the answer was satisfactory: Tessa from Detroit was off the air.
Who knows where Tessa is today, whether she left the city deemed most “beleaguered” of all, or whether she’s still there now to witness the moment when, in its bankruptcy, it is deemed, by the very same person, as full of “seeds of rebirth.”

I just cringe reading this, largely because it’s so easy to ramble on radio shows when you get wrong-footed on a question, but we do have to confront the painful narcissism and uselessness of the response, combined with the lack of usefulness of social science at all to Tessa’s plight. The rest of the MacGuinness piece over at TNR is good, too. Go read.

Maybe the rest of us could back up a bit, hold our breath, and wait for the people of Detroit to tell us what would they would have us do to help. We’ll ignore that Rand Paul person, as we should anyway, and just try to give people a little room for a change. In the mean time, I highly recommend George Galster’s wonderful book: Driving Detroit. He’s a native, and he loves his home, and sometimes maybe we should just respect those feelings, too.

Crenshaw and the riots that weren’t

In general, if you have scream and yell that a riot took place, I think it’s fair to conclude that a riot did not, in fact, take place.

I live in a neighborhood that is wedged along Crenshaw Boulevard, just a bit north of Leimert Park, which is a great neighborhood in Los Angeles–don’t let any Fox News types tell you different. Beautiful houses, nice little commercial district.  I know that various and sundry parts of the punditry want the world to believe that rampaging Negroes took over this part of Los Angeles and beat up defenseless, gunless, white people, but I *actually live* here on Crenshaw–I can throw a softball over my back fence and hit traffic on Crenshaw. I sent out tweets and FBoo updates about the seven or eight ghetto birds that flew all night.  Traffic was a mess. And yeah, there were some scuffles, Wal-mart got broken into, and a journalist got pushed over. But looking at the arrests and citations is pretty enlightening. Jaywalking citations.  Some citations for excessive honking.

Oh my! Not excessive honking.

I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure in 1992 that the police  didn’t have the sort of time on their hands that would have allowed them  to give out tickets for excessive honking.

This is LA, people, and this was not a riot.  This was a peaceful protest with some jerks who came out hoping to use the protests as an excuse to run wild and act like the  jerks they are. They come out after the Lakers win championships, as they do in just about every city when sports championships are in play.

It is a sign of how screwed up the entire discussion about race is in this country when people cite Reginald Denny as an example of how scary and unjust and horrible it is to be targeted for random street violence simply because of one’s race.   Um, yes, it is, isn’t it?

But as it is, there’s not much to see around these parts, except some lovely gardens and nice old houses.

Social mobility in the city and the five worst cities for higher income attainment

I want to get my hands on the original paper, but this write-up in the New York Times looks extremely promising. The idea that where you are born–not just where within a city, but in what city–matters to your life chances. While the article spends a lot of time trying to make what is going on about urban form in their discussion of Atlanta, the actual data as displayed do not appear to follow from that: New York city is a place that appears to have a great deal of mobility, but so does Houston, if I understand the graphic properly, which I am not sure that I do. Miami is one of those regions that flips around in sprawl measures, so…how do we deal with that in these figures?

That said, please do not think that I think it’s just fine that people in Atlanta live in segregated communities and have three- and four-hour commutes. I don’t. But there is probably more going on here than a physical mobility. I suspect it is a symptom rather than a cause of low social mobility, though that doesn’t make those commutes less burdensome or destructive to family life or economic security to those who face them.

Here’s one answer I can get behind; schools can offer ways to leverage opportunities within place as well opening richer opportunities than suggested by three-hour commutes:

Lawrence Katz, a labor economist who did not work on the project, said he was struck by the fact that areas with high levels of income mobility were also those that established high school earliest and have long had strong school systems. Mr. Katz, a Harvard economist and former Clinton administration official, called the work “certainly the most comprehensive analysis of intergenerational mobility in the contemporary U.S.”

Social mobility can also go the other direction as well. I wonder what is going on with that?

Alter.net summarized the story and highlighted the five worst cities, all of which are in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee–which brings us full circle, I think. While we all want to talk about about cities matter, and they do, I think we also have a clear case that states matter a great deal in the setting the urban social context in which schools and urban form and the other factors develop. For all those people out there who want to shriek at me that “we’ve never tried” small government…that’s baloney. We have a big variation in the social safety set and in social inclusion programs  in state and provincial governments around the world, and we have strong differences in outcomes. Whether those are causal we can debate, but we can’t claim no variance or experimentation.  While I don’t have the data and this is conjecture, what we see here in these data are likely one product of that variation.

Eleanor Bumpurs and the Alchemy of Race and Rights

Harvard University Press blog has some excerpts of Patricia Williams’ excellent book from 1991, The Alchemy  of Race and Rights

 

If our laws are thus piano-wired on the exclusive validity of literalism, if they are picked clean of their spirit, then society risks heightened irresponsibility for the consequence of abominable actions.

 

Holy ratfarts, I wish I could write like that. Go read.  

 

SYG is the stupidest possible law ever in urban areas

By now, anybody who is not living under a rock has read the Trayvon Martin verdict.  This is the worst possible outcome, for a variety reasons, but mostly because of the seriously dysfunctional outcome for case law around Stand Your Ground laws. I really don’t understand why the jury couldn’t muster a manslaughter verdict here. It would have placed a reasonable personal limits on an over-reaching law, just like dram shop laws place responsibility on bar owners for continuing to serve people they know are driving.

There is innocent blood on the ground, and it’s George Zimmerman’s bad judgment that put blood on the ground. Right now, we are at a point where SYG essentially says you can instigate a conflict–Zimmerman was expressly told to back off–and then end that conflict with a gun if you find you are on the losing end of the fight you yourself started.  It’s a recipe for disaster in cosmopolitan urban areas where people are constantly in close proximity with strangers and where arguments about public space happen routinely, and where, because of cross-class and cross-race fears, those conflicts are likely to feel more serious and more threatening than they are. But they get serious, as we have seen, often, when a gun is involved.

It doesn’t matter what kind of kid Trayvon Martin was, whether he smoked a little pot or gasp! had gotten in trouble in school, or whether he was a straight-A student or all of the above. He was on the street; streets are not your house; even if he were the worst and most rotten kid in the world, the street is not an extension of your living room where you control who has access and who doesn’t.  For cities to function, the rules for the street  have to be different than the rules governing private property via castle laws.