I’m devoting my blog today to the She Writes Day of Action, which, as many of you already know, is aimed at amassing a list of all the superlative books written by women authors this year. I found it surprisingly easy to come up with some great books written by women in 2009. (Surprising only because most of my favorite books were written before 1940.)
The Day of Action came about when Kamy Wicoff, the fearless founder of the women writers' website She Writes, protested that not a SINGLE book by a female author was included on Publishers Weekly’s list of Ten Best books in 2009. She put out a call for all of us to come up with our favorites written by women this year. That’s when I realized I’d read three in just the past couple of months.
So here they are.
--“Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel. A fascinating historical novel about Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell. Men readers sometimes object that books by women aren’t “magisterial,” don’t deal with weighty topics, don’t have enough information. Well this book is all of those while being incredibly exciting to read. The scenes are almost cinematic, there’s a driving rhythm to the prose that carries you forward, and the dialogue is believable without sounding overly modern for the Tudor era. (Yes, I’m thinking of that TV series about the Tudors.)
I heard Hilary Mantel speak in London about her research for this book, and it’s clear that she’s dead serious about being true to the history. She seems to have read all the primary sources and she goes with those even when they contradict the movies that most of us remember about this period.
For all of us who cherished Paul Scofield’s portrayal of Thomas More in the 1966 film “A Man for All Seasons,” Mantel wants you to know that More actually wasn’t a 1960s liberal.
And if you’ve read Mantel’s “Beyond Black,” you know that she is unmatched at conveying an ominous psychological sense that something bad is about to happen—as it did for a lot of people under Henry’s reign. Oh yes, and did I mention it’s written from a man’s point of view? Anything a man can do, she can do better.
--“Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House,” by Miranda Seymour. A memoir about Seymour’s father and his life-long, obsessive struggle to hold on to his family’s stately home in the English Midlands. This is one of the most honest accounts I’ve read of a less-than-perfect relationship between a daughter and her father.
It’s also a fascinating peek into a way of life that will be foreign to most Americans. What starts out looking like gracious living ends up being an endless struggle to pay for leaky roofs, including renting out your historic hall for as many weddings and social events as can pay the bills. Ultimately, a very moving account about how the very family battles you turn your back on can ultimately become yours as well. No way a man could have written this story.
--“A Gate at the Stairs,” by Lorrie Moore. Lorrie Moore is a national treasure as anyone who has read her short story collection “Birds of America” knows. I’ll confess this long-awaited novel doesn’t seem as immediately powerful as her short stories—at which she is a true master. But I found myself thinking about this book weeks after I finished it. A Midwestern college girl goes to work as a babysitter for a couple who seem to epitomize East Coast sophistication. She starts her job with them just as they’re adopting a mixed-race baby. Moore is scathing about easily held political correctness—whether it’s spouted by urban liberals or adoption agency social workers. And ultimately she shows how some of those easily held views lead to incomprehensible tragedy.
I’m looking forward to learning about all the other great books written by women this year before I turn back to Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton…