I feel like I might say this every year: but 2016 was such a great year in reading — especially for women, both women readers and the women writers who were essential for putting these books that every woman should read on bookstore shelves in 2016. I don’t know about you, but this year (and over the last few months, in particular) I’ve been in desperate need for some seriously empowering inspiration. The books on this list have given me exactly that, and so much more.
Published over the course of the last year, these 20 books that all women should read tackle some difficult, and inconvenient, and underrepresented truths: they tell coming-of-age stories and give voice to experiences of misogyny and sexual violence; they explore the trauma and the beauty of childbirth and the devastating experiences of losing a child or being unable to conceive in the first place; they shed light on the essential, ceiling-shattering roles that single women have played in American history, and are playing in current events; they tell stories of addiction and losing one’s way, and fighting to find oneself all over again. They are novels and memoirs and poetry collections and investigative reports that have inspired me, and entertained me, and helped me grow this year — as all great books do.
Check out these 20 books that all women should read from 2016.
Reading like the perfect blend of Mindy Kaling, Caitlin Moran, and Sylvia Plath, Jade Sharma’s debut novel Problems is one of the most unromanticized and uncomfortably relatable portrayals of addiction and recovery I’ve ever read. Maya is a young bookstore employee with a more-than-recreational heroin habit, and is completely underwhelmed by her husband, her elderly lover, her life in New York City, and ultimately herself. And she’s going to fix all of those things… eventually, because if there’s one thing readers learn about the lovably flawed Maya, it’s that she knows exactly who she is, and she’ll change if and when she feels like it.
Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres , features four vastly different young women, each named Guinevere, who have been thrown together by one shared circumstance: all have been abandoned by their parents to grow up in a remote convent, living through their teen years entirely isolated from the outside world. But when a group of severely wounded and unidentified World War II soldiers arrive at the convent, the Guineveres’ lives change in unexpected and devastating ways. Domet has constructed a complete picture of the survival and revival journeys of four women, who readers will begin to feel as though they know in real life.
A must-read for feminists and fans of the graphic novel, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming takes readers to Yorkshire, England during the 1970s and '80s, and into the life of one emerging feminist as she experiences a childhood fraught with sexual and gender violence, and begins to develop her own voice against the shame and silencing that victims of sexual violence are almost always subjected to. Set against the backdrop of the “Yorkshire Ripper” murders, the violence in Una’s personal life reflects that of the violence going on in the larger world around her. Becoming Unbecoming acts like a call to action for any woman who is tired of being denied the opportunity to put a voice to her own experiences.
Investigating the gender biases that influence everything from how we perceive art, literature, and the world around us, to how we engage with our bodies and minds together, to how healthcare and medical research have been historically male-centered, Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women is a challenging and well-researched essay collection that merges science and art, and invokes feminist ideals in a whole new way.
Told in straightforward and uncomplicated verse, this self-published poetry collection tells a story of four different women: the princess, the damsel, the queen, and the reader, exploring the journey of love and loss, failure and redemption, and grief and healing, and self-empowerment that poet Amanda Lovelace has walked through in her life, and that all readers can relate to. And yeah, we all love a good “the princess saves herself” story.
Published in early September by Flatiron Books, this is the latest book by Momastery.com founder Glennon Doyle Melton. A memoir, Love Warrior tells the story of one woman’s journey through heartbreak and healing in the wake of her marriage’s crumbling, as she rebuilds her relationship with herself and works to raise her children with big-hearted, feminist ideals. It’s also a story about Doyle’s struggles to let go of the gendered messages that surround women for their entire lives, and connecting with her must human, most authentic self.
Haunting and beautifully written, this debut novel was inspired by the Manson murders of 1969. Emma Cline’s The Girls introduces readers to Evie Boyd, a 14-years-old girl who finds herself drawn into what turns out to be a cult led by a disturbing, albeit intriguing Manson-style man named Russell. But while the mysterious girls of the cult — with their supposed freedom and never-ending love — seem appealing to Evie, the teen begins to realize she’s been pulled into something darker than she realized. The Girls is a tale of being young and inexperienced, and how all the tiny decisions of girlhood can, sometimes, change your life forever.
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Written in Eimear McBride’s signature stream-of-consciousness style, The Lesser Bohemians tells the story of a young acting student named Eily and a much older actor named Stephen, who enter into a sexual affair that will change both of their lives in surprising and unexpected ways. Forced by the intensity of their relationship to confront the myriad issues they’ve been suppressing since their childhoods, their affair is marked by both violence and healing in equal measure, taking them into the darkest parts of themselves in order to ultimately draw closer to the light.
Based on a viral essay published in Orion magazine in 2012, Belle Boggs memoir-through-essay, The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood dissects what it means to parent and procreate in our modern world. Faced with her own inability to conceive, Boggs catalogs the examples of fertility, infertility, and parenting that seem to exist all around her — not only that of her fellow humans, but also taking note of local baby eagles, 13-year cicadas, and the pregnancy and birthing experiences of other species we share our world with, demonstrating that there is no one path to parenthood, and no experience of mothering more valid than another.
Nominated for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk , tells the story of Sofia, a young anthropologist who has dedicated her life to finding a solution for her mother Rose’s bizarre and undiagnosed illness. This search takes both mother and daughter to Spain, where the seek out the help of an unconventional physician named Dr. Gomez — who may or may not be doing more harm than help. This novel explores the gender bias that informs physical and mental healthcare, and sexual relationships.
This memoir-through-essays tells a story of emerging adulthood — what it’s like to be a twenty-something woman: broke, inexperienced, trying to figure out your way in the world — and it serves as a great reminder that we all make similar mistakes as we’re learning to become ourselves. Author Chloe Caldwell’s voice is quirky and straight-forward as she shares tales of failing at all the things adults fail at, falling in love, and turning addictive tendencies towards people, food, and drugs as she flounders through her twenties, as we all did and do.
An intimate and complex story of childbirth and all the personal history, joy, and anguish that a woman brings into the birthing room with her, Pamela Erens’s novel Eleven Hours introduces readers to two women on the verge of becoming mothers: Lore, who arrives at a hospital completely alone, committed to her natural childbirth plan, and Franckline, her maternity nurse who is pregnant herself. Throughout Lore’s difficult labor the two women connect over the emotionally fraught experience, making peace with the separate pasts that brought them to the same place, and accepting their futures as mothers and empowered women.
Maria Semple writes women who have run out of f*cks to give better than just about anybody—and we love her for it. In Today Will Be Different , Semple introduces readers to Eleanor Flood, a woman who is a bit of a mess, but is doing everything she can to try to fix that… sort of. A hilarious and relatable novel about a woman who is forced to encounter the ends of her wits before beginning anew, Today Will Be Different will have you laughing out loud and then possibly planning a vacation from your own life.
A novel of female friendship, family, and identity, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two African European girls who spend their childhoods dreaming of being dancers and breaking the racial stereotypes of the dance industry. Taking readers from London to West Africa and back, the novel jumps between the perspectives of the unnamed narrator and her friend Tracey, whose lives end up taking rather diverging paths. At its core this is a novel about relationships: relationships with friends, relationships with place, relationships with art and music, and relationships with ourselves.
This memoir by acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren packs a serious punch, weaving science and scholarship with Jahren’s personal history and travel adventures. Lab Girl presents stories from Jahren’s childhood — her upbringing in rural Minnesota and her early love of science — explaining her compassionate and big-hearted take on scientific inquiry and research. It also tells a story of the friendship that exists at the heart of Jahren’s adult life, with her lab partner and fellow adventurer Bill.
Taking place over the course of five decades in the lives of four parents and six children, Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth , begins with a simple act: a kiss. But it’s a kiss that sends each of the aforementioned family members’ lives spinning off in directions they might never have expected. For years they’ve believed they made peace with their complicated and interwoven pasts, but when their personal lives become the subject of a successful novelist’s next book, they’re forced to confront the pains they’ve been keeping beneath the surface, once and for all.
Approximately 2.7 million American minors have at least one parent who is currently incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. At 13-years-old, memorist Molly Brodak became one of them. Her father was convicted of bank robbery and served seven years in jail; once released, he committed another robbery and was incarcerated once more. Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir is an account of Brodak’s relationship with her father—a complicated man who was a typical father and a criminal in equal measure, and how her relationship with him informed Brodak’s own life.
18. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
Tracing the history of unmarried and late-married women in America, and the role single women have long played in American life, investigative journalist Rebecca Traister explores the sexual, economic, social, political and emotional lives of women in America, and what having the freedom (economic and otherwise) to remain single has meant not just for women, but for the nation. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation demonstrates that for generations single women have been at the forefront of social change and political revolution.
When writer Mira Ptacin became pregnant at 28-years-old, she soon discovered the child she was carrying wouldn't be able to survive outside the womb. Faced with some devastating choices: terminate the pregnancy, induce early delivery, or inevitably miscarry, Ptacin must find the strength in herself to walk a path she never imagined for herself, and make one of three seemingly-impossible decisions. It is through the lens of this loss that Poor Your Soul considers another loss: one experienced by Ptacin's mother, who is mourning a child of her own — her only son, who was killed by a drunk driver.
Author, columnist, and co-founder of Feministing.com Jessica Valenti is a badass, and every woman should read at least some of her work. Adding another necessary voice to the national conversation about sexual violence against women, Valenti’s darkly humorous memoir, Sex Object , will invite you to take a look back at some of your own sexual experiences with newfound understanding and intelligence, while reminding you of all the ways that your personal sexuality could be influenced and informed by modern sexism.