My bookshelves are filled with the stories of women - from Greek mythology to the witch hunts to the suffragettes; prize-winning fiction to moving memoirs to light beach reads; artists and creators and cooks. Ohmigosh, The. Cookbooks. So much more than recipes, these reveal connections we feel between all the ways we give and receive nourishment. These books themselves also nourish me, and in honor of Women's History Month and International Women's Day, I hope the selections I've shared below may do the same for you.
My IRL book club convenes in March to celebrate Women's History Month with a discussion of women's fiction or memoir. We’ve had powerful conversations about books like A Woman Is No Man, Becoming, and Kamala Harris's memoir The Truths We Hold. This year, building on that tradition, I’ve compiled a list of recently published works from my own home library and included a few upcoming must-reads to add to your TBR stack now.
The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights by Dorothy Wickenden
I read this book about Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright, and Frances Seward just before last year’s milestone Birthday trip to Seneca Falls, New York to visit several iconic women’s history sites, and it inspired a deeper, more informed, and richer experience. A riveting account of personal lives, struggles, friendship, and shared activism of these three profoundly influential women, The Agitators spans the 1820s – when Tubman is enslaved and Wright and Seward are young homemakers bound by law and tradition – to the aftermath the U.S. Civil War. Through the lens of their stories, Wickenden shares nuanced insight into some of the most transformative events and individuals in our nation’s most formative years, like Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and the Underground Railroad. File under stuff you didn’t learn in history class but should have.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
The New York Times called this book a “captivating and slyly subversive fictional paean to the real women whose work on the Oxford English Dictionary went largely unheralded.” When she discovers a discarded slip of paper containing the word bondmaid, Esme begins a lifelong journey to collect and preserve words used to describe and define the lives and experiences of women and other marginalized people. Set during the era of women’s suffrage, The Dictionary of Lost Words weaves a vibrant narrative from between the lines of history written and recorded by men. Inspired by actual events, Williams researched Oxford English Dictionary archives to create this thought-provoking and engaging story that ultimately reminds us just how much words matter.
Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection curated and illustrated by Lindsay Gardner
Food, food writing, and food rituals nourish me – body, mind, and soul. It's a love language for me, and although it was a side of myself I'd tapped into long before the pandemic, when this book came out last year, it added a whole new dimension to my understanding of and relationship with these concepts. Featuring essays, profiles, recipes, and "conversations" with more than 100 women restaurateurs, activists, food writers, professional chefs, and home cooks, Why We Cook inspires us to see food and food preparation as more than a life sustaining necessity, but also an outlet for creativity, connection, comfort, and social and cultural change.
Blush by Jamie Brenner
Three generations of Hollander family women mine the messages of 70s and 80s guilty pleasure novels by authors like Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins for sage advice on life, love, and business. This is one of those rare beautiful novels that looks and feels light and fun (it published last summer during beach read season) but packs so much character depth, an immersive sense of place, and actual educational information - about wine and winemaking - in one pink-wrapped package. The title does double duty here as a reference to wine and the scandalous plot lines of the books Lace-d (wink, wink - read the book) throughout. Due entirely to this book I now own vintage copies of Scruples and Chances. Thank you, Jamie Brenner.
Going There by Katie Couric
Katie Couric shattered journalistic and small screen glass ceilings when, in 2006 at CBS, she became the first woman to solo anchor an evening newscast. An iconic figure in media for decades, Couric's memoir is a time capsule of historic moments witnessed up close. But Going There is so much more than one TV host's take on world events and interactions with famous (and infamous) people. It's a career narrative by a hardworking and driven professional who overcame entrenched industry sexism to stand at the top of her field and then boldly pivot to entrepreneurship. It's the deeply personal story of a woman who weathered more than anyone's fair share of tragedy, heartbreak, and loss. And, it's a call to action for all of us - but especially women - to fight for our dreams, lean into our intellect and humanity, lift up and support other women, and above all, stay true to ourselves.
In 2017, in the wake of the viral #MeToo movement and cultural reckoning, TIME magazine named Burke and a broader group of activist “silence breakers” as its Person of the Year. A survivor of rape and sexual assault as a young child and teenager, Burke channeled her emotional recovery into becoming a resource of support for others with similar experiences. A champion for healing and crusader for gender and racial equity, Burke shares the story of finding her voice and purpose in this powerful memoir.
Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer
In this collection of 13 short stories, most originally published in the 60s and 70s in magazines like Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post plus a new story set in the present, Wolitzer shows us the musings, the mundane, the minutiae - and yes, the madness - of women's (and men's) lives. Of their time but also timeless, these stories coalesce around themes of longing and loss, of silent screams and public breakdowns, of suffocating distance and liberating proximity, of sex and celibacy and the underlying ennui that can drive both. But in Wolitzer's skilled hand, the quotidian is elevated, crackling with energy. She once told an interviewer, "I don't believe there's such a thing as an ordinary life. I think all life is extraordinary." There you have it.
Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh
Haigh's novels are so raw and real and personal, and at the same time almost didactic yet poetic. She shows the inner and outer worlds of her characters in ways that make me feel like I know them. That I am them. Every word matters. Every scene builds up or peels back - Chekhov's gun in every sentence. Mercy Street is a setting, a salvo, a salvation. It is subtext for the grace Haigh gives her characters - for some, it's the only place they'll ever find find it. Mercy Street is a women's clinic and an intersection of counselors and clients and the crusaders, by whom the appellative theme is weaponized and wielded without irony against those who need it most. Centered on one of the most misunderstood and polarizing issues of our time, this story takes us beyond the clinic walls, behind the keyboard warriors, and inside the hearts and minds of people on all sides.
In Defense of Witches by Mona Chollet
Nonfiction books about witches typically fall into two categories - the historical horrors of trials and executions or 21st century witchcraft guides for the modern practitioner. In Defense of Witches is something altogether different in its universality and resonance and application. While this book covers significant historical ground, the modern-day context is not meant to serve as a how-to guide, but rather as a deep and nuanced exploration of the myriad ways women today live in a society shaped by centuries-old societal and cultural norms, misogyny, and fear. "We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren't able to burn," and yet we continue to live out the sentence in many ways, both veiled and overt. Scholarly yet accessible, In Defense of Witches opens with the invitation to envision the first witch who captured our attention. For me, it was Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, and then Samantha of the television show Bewitched - and later, Kim Novak as Gillian in Bell, Book, and Candle. Witches were - still are - my favorite characters. Magical, dynamic, beautiful, smart, and usually with a cat around. Those characters would shape my perceptions about what it meant to be a witch - and inform my own development – in profound ways. The conclusion of this book is a powerful reminder of our own agency and potent to call to action to harness the "joy of audacity" in shaping a new legacy - one of humanity, equity, harmony with nature, and "the untrammeled enjoyment of our bodies and our minds." So mote it be. Chollet, a Swiss journalist and author living and working in France, first published this book as Sorcières in French in 2018. This is its first English translation and is important for U.S. audiences' understanding of the European historical references vs. contextualized vis à vis Salem or the like. And, how much do I love the fact that it was released today, in honor of International Women's Day?! A lot. I love that a lot.
Grace Bonney's In the Company of Women (published in 2016, and the book I absolutely needed when I resigned from the corporate world to pursue entrepreneurship that same year) is one of my best-loved books. And, as I approached my own milestone Birthday, I was thrilled to learn she had compiled a new collection of women's stories - seemingly written just for me - to counsel and comfort and connect and impact and inspire. Bonney shares in her introduction that, with this book, she "seeks to rebalance the scales by valuing women who have lived long and complex lives - the experience and perspective that come with that." The women I met here are new friends, mentors, and mother figures - accepting, aspirational, nurturing, and wise. This is a book that everyone who identifies as female needs - those of my generation, and especially those younger. These are spirits of our future selves, and they are fierce and beautiful.
What My IRL Book Club is Reading This Month
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
In last month's Black History Month book roundup, I shared a quote about reading being an exercise in empathy. This book is another compelling example of the power of books to bridge gaps in understanding and provide insight into a lived experience that many readers would never otherwise have. Here, Stephanie Land recounts her unforgettable story of single motherhood, working as a house cleaner by day while taking classes at night, and harrowing journey through the red tape, stigma, incongruity, and precariousness of government assistance programs. While shining a light on the nearly insurmountable struggles of the working poor, she reveals the unwavering resilience, hope, and courage required not only to survive, but ultimately thrive. Read this book, and then stream the stellar Netflix limited series it inspired.
Four Coming Soon Must-Reads to Add to Your TBR Stack Now
The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson
Earlier this year I responded to the question, 'What novel would you recommend to any book club?' with the historical fiction masterpiece The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, about the packhorse librarians of Appalachia. I hereby amend my answer with its sequel, The Book Woman's Daughter. From exploring themes of racism, misogyny, rural poverty, and violence against women to its uplifting portrayal of sisterhood, the agency and value of women in society, intergenerational caregiving, human-animal bonds, the quest for justice, and the powerful potential and transcendence of books and literacy, The Book Woman's Daughter poignantly captures a moment and place in time, while maintaining the timelessness of our most beloved classics. Honey, the title character, is at once Atticus and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, while cast by others in this story as a Tom, and even sometimes Boo Radley. Her strength, conviction, courage, resilience, and empathy in the face of relentless ignorance, uncertainty, physical danger, and persecution informs a new kind of archetype for the heroine's journey. A native Kentuckian, Richardson writes with deep knowledge of and respect for her home state. Elevating its struggles beyond the stereotypes, she gives us a story of heartbreak and hope, brutality and beauty, and ultimately faith, freedom, and fulfillment. The friendship of Honey and Pearl; Honey's love and care for animals; the books she delivers; and the real archival photos of packhorse librarians and coal mining women at the end are particular highlights for me. Release date: 3 May, 2022
The Change by Kirsten Miller
The publisher had me at "Big Little Lies meets The Witches of Eastwick - if it had been written by a woman." You've already read about my love of witches, and The Change riffs on that theme by introducing three powerful heroines whose magical capabilities emerge with menopause. Here again is a title with dual meaning, and I love how subversively clever Miller is in turning an oft-dreaded midlife rite of passage into a metamorphosis of empowerment and shared purpose. This is Charmed at 50 with the added depth of post-#MeToo societal context and our cultural reckoning with misogyny and violence against women. This novel is a thriller, a mystery, and women's literary fiction all in one. Release date: 3 May, 2022
Her Country by Marissa R. Moss
Extensively researched and with dozens upon dozens of personal interviews and firsthand accounts, Moss delivers a vividly drawn portrait of three iconic women breaking the female mold and rules of country music – Kacey Musgraves, Mickey Guyton, and Maren Morris. A career music journalist, Moss puts under a microscope the sexism and endless other forms of inherent bias that seek to marginalize and undermine progressive artists and sabotage promising careers. Her Country also explores the artifice of rah rah patriotism and regular Joe-ness carefully constructed by industry insiders whose stock-in-trade has become divisive messaging and unironic red meat clichés of men and women. This book on artistry and artists is an important read and lifts the veil for readers who may be unfamiliar with how the music business - and specifically country music - operates and wields its power. Release date: 10 May, 2022
The Grand Design: A Novel of Dorothy Draper by Joy Callaway
This book is an example of historical fiction at its best - immersive with a feeling of grandness in scale, an impeccable sense of place, and with a central character who becomes flesh and blood and breathes with life on every page. I love that the publisher decided to change the title from The Greenbrier Resort to The Grand Design prior to publication - with its dual meaning of Dorothy Draper's work at The Greenbrier resort and also the grand plan she had for her own life, eschewing the mandates of her era's class and gender roles. Told in alternating timelines, we meet Dorothy as a headstrong young heiress and later in life as the iconic designer she has become, the former providing insight to events that shape Dorothy's character and career. I appreciated the author's note at the end to distinguish fact from fiction, and I've already added several of the suggested further readings to my personal collection. Release date: 17 May, 2022