A Reading List With a Feminine Twist
International Women’s Day, to be observed this year on March 8, is a perfect time to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women, past and present, throughout the world.
Of course, any discussion of their contributions to society would not be complete without a review of their literary works. Countless women have written stories, novels and poetry which have enlightened, fascinated and, in many cases, changed the lives of their readers.
I have been fond of reading since I was young, and some authors’ works have stayed with me longer than others.
There are books that I can read over and over again without ever getting bored. Every time I pick them up, I am amazed by how ordinary words can be used so perfectly to render worlds filled with fantasy or tragedy.
With this list, I honor the female writers who have impressed me, and millions of others, with their fine works:
Enid Blyton, 1897-1968, England
As a young girl, I wished for nothing more than to be sent off to a boarding school like St. Clare’s or Malory Towers, just as the heroines in Enid Blyton’s popular book series.
Of course, I later realized that boarding school was probably not as much fun as described in the books.
The characters lived in a happy, peaceful world, where values like fairness and kindness were held high and everyone stayed together through thick and thin.
The mean girls in the book learn their lesson and turn into good people in the end. It presents a somewhat idyllic view of the world, sure, but one must keep in mind that the books are meant for children.
Sometimes, when I want to remember what it felt like to be a little girl, I leaf through the already yellowed pages of Blyton’s novels and just imagine for a while that I’m living at St. Clare’s with the O’Sullivan twins.
Banana Yoshimoto, born 1964, Japan
Wonderfully weird, haunting, poignant and humorous: These are just a few of the wonderful qualities found in the novels of Banana Yoshimoto. “Kitchen,” her debut novel, and “Asleep, her sophomore effort, are among my favorite books.
Having lived in Japan for nine years, I understand the culture and empathize with the despondency of the young characters in her stories as they struggle to live in modern Japan while trying to keep the old traditions alive.
Jane Austen, 1775-1817, England
If any writer is responsible for my romantic notions about life and relationships, it would be Jane Austen.
I was infatuated with the English writer’s novels — particularly “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” — and often dreamt about meeting a man as strong-willed and independent as Mr. Darcy or as gallant, kind and patient as Colonel Brandon.
As I grew older, the satisfaction brought by Austen’s happy endings made me go back to her novels again and again.
Through repeated reading, I learned more about the writer. Austen’s wit and biting social commentary is just as integral to her literary legacy as her sophisticated plots and subtle characterizations. Whenever I am in need of a little laughter and love, Austen has never let me down.
Jhumpa Lahiri, born 1967, England
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri is an enchantress armed with elegant and deeply meaningful prose, amply illustrated in both her novel, “The Namesake,” and her two short-story collections, “Interpreter of Maladies” and “Unaccustomed Earth.”
The majority of her characters are Indian immigrants in America who must balance their lives between two often conflicting cultures. She draws from the experiences of her parents, who moved from Bengali, a territory now divided between Bangladesh and India, to London, where Lahiri was born. Her family later moved to the United States.
She adds complexity to the family dynamic in her stories by exploring the lives of second- and third-generation immigrants who tend to reject their origins and embrace their adopted culture. Lahiri approaches this difficult subject with empathy and an eye for her characters’ inner struggles.
Juliet Marillier, born 1948, New Zealand
I am actually not a big fan of fantasy novels, with the exception of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
But when I was on vacation in Vietnam a few years ago, the resort I was staying in had a small library where I capriciously picked up “The Daughter of the Forest” by Juliet Marillier.
Reading the summary, I realized that the story was loosely based on “The Wild Swans,” one of my favorite fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. On the strength of this fact, I decided to give Marillier’s book a try — and I finished the bulky tome in only two days.
Marillier adds an element of mystery to ancient folk tales, which makes for intriguing stories. Her debut novel and its four sequels are worth reading.
Ayu Utami, born 1968, Indonesia
I read Ayu Utami’s debut novel, “Saman,” for my thesis. I found it bold, daring, fast-paced and sometimes confusing as it jumped back and forth between different storylines.
I once had the chance to interview her and I found her to be an outspoken, intelligent woman. For me, Ayu is leading a new wave of young Indonesian authors who are not afraid to speak their minds and tackle thorny issues.
Sylvia Plath, 1932-1963, America
The sad life of Sylvia Plath, who suffered from severe depression and eventually committed suicide, is reflected in her poignant works.
Her poems, all disturbing yet fascinating, and the semiautobiographical novel “The Bell Jar,” allow the reader to look into the author’s soul.
I have always felt a deep sympathy for this troubled writer. I often look for signs in her writings — like a cry for help, perhaps — forewarning the world that she would take her own life someday, leaving behind two little children.
Plath wrote in a confessional style, revealing intimate details about her personal life in her poems. It is this quality that makes her writing so heartbreakingly haunting and irresistible to read.
Arundhati Roy, born 1961, India
Arundhati Roy crafted a painstakingly beautiful story in her novel, “The God of Small Things.”
In that award-winning book, she cleverly weaves a story of passionate, forbidden love between an untouchable and a lovely lady from a higher caste, as seen through the eyes of the woman’s twin children.
It also explores sexual awakening, death and acrimonious family relations.
With the greatest of ease, Roy manages to include social commentary about class relations and cultural tensions in India into her story, deftly weaving in the country’s larger history.
After reading “The God of Small Things,” I felt like I had gained an understanding of India as a country while also learning a lesson or two about the interactions between human beings.