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.

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