Are there days where you just can’t even? Did the season finale of Game of Thrones just push you right over the edge? We’ve all been there — relationship problems, gender confusion, female friendships, fear of death, unemployment, family matters, the whole ish. These writers are here and they are publishing books that just GET you right now. On the days when you’re wondering “am I a terrible person?” “what the hell am I doing with my life?” and/or “do I have enough cash to get an iced coffee on the way to work and who will suffer if I don’t?”, rest assured that these writers have been there and they are vibing right alongside you.
Best of all, these books won’t judge you if you love to hate-watch The Bachelorette (it’s a social experiment, dammit) or if you just don’t have the energy to be your sweet, patient self today. These women understand what it means to feel weird, to deal with labels like “women’s fiction,” “confessional,” or “autobiographical.” They have read the VIDA stats on work published by women, and they are pushing forward in spite of assumptions, roadblocks, and jerks. So when you need a shoulder to cry or laugh on, pick up a book by one of these awesome female writers. Thank them for being a friend.
Heidi Julavits is the author of four novels and was co-editor, along with Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, of the ultimate cool-girl book Women in Clothes . She tackles nonfiction in her latest book, The Folded Clock , a wacky diary she wrote over the course of two years. In it, she ruminates on past relationships, motherhood, friendships, and her own neurotic behavior. The resulting book is wonderfully refreshing. It makes you want to call up Julavits, or just respond with a one word email: “Yaaaaas.” Although she's happily married, Julavits admits to crushes of convenience. She argues who you have a crush on is entirely dependent on the situation. In “the real world” you might never find that person attractive. Sounds familiar, right?
Uttering the name Maggie Nelson in a room of literary-minded people is like giving the password at a secret club. You know by mentioning her work you’re bound to find kindred-spirits. My first encounter with her work came through her book Bluets , a love letter to the color blue. Nelson wrote this book following a particularly nasty break-up, and its part memoir, part poetry, part epistolary nature makes it the perfect summer read. Her new book, The Argonauts, is a rumination on Nelson’s relationship with the fluidly-gendered artist Harry Dodge. It is also a philosophical excursion on what it means to be a woman, the meaning of the word “queer,” and Nelson’s experience of becoming a mother for the first time. Nelson's relationship with Harry results in a plethora of questions (some from friends and family, but mostly from strangers) about her own gender identity and sexuality that you may have asked yourself. The Argonauts is Nelson's own investigation into these questions to seek answers for the only person whose opinion really matters: her own.
For years, the literary community was stumped about the identity of Elena Ferrante, an Italian novelist who had written several remarkable books but never done a single interview. Even her own publishers had never seen her, as she had her manuscripts delivered via messenger. But recently she finally caved and gave an interview to The Paris Review in celebration of the immense popularity of her Neapolitan Novels — a series of books (four to date) about lifelong friends, Elena and Lila. Both women (as young girls) have an intense desire to create something and to escape their lives in Naples. The result is a powerful book about female friendship. What makes Ferrante so relatable is her ability to describe the "girl crush" and all its traps: competition, inspiration, respect, and betrayal. Like the female version of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Elena and Lila are deeply competitive with one another, they also need each other: they push each other. Ferrante shows us just how affecting — and essential — female friendships are to women. Not just as girls, but over the course of our lives.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
You may have seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s 2013 novel Americanah pretty much everywhere. This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, a Nigerian couple who go West — Ifemelu to the United States, Obinze to London. Adiche chronicles their very different experiences as they grapple with racial identity in foreign lands, only to reunite in Nigeria 15 years later. Adiche is deeply in touch with what it means to be black woman in a white culture. She reveals how even the most benign language can, at its core, be inherently racist. For instance: how a white woman calling a black woman "beautiful" just means they consider her "an ordinary-looking black woman." And not only does Adiche articulate what it means to be an outsider from a racial standpoint, she communicates how difficult it is to assimilate back into one's native culture after time away. And the feeling of "you can't go home again" is something we can all relate to, no matter how we identify.
If you aren’t reading Kate Atkinson, stop everything you’re doing, run, do not walk, to the nearest bookstore, and pick up a copy of her novel Life After Life . How this book did not win the Nobel Prize, or whatever the biggest prize for anything ever is, is completely beyond me. The premise of the book is that our heroine, Ursula, is born on a cold English night in 1910. Then she dies, strangled by her umbilical cord. Next thing we know, she’s being born again. This time, she survives to become a toddler, only to drown in the sea. Then she’s reborn again. The iterations of her life are endless (some short, one page, others long, over 200 pages). Ursula's family knows she's touched. She has a sixth sense about the future. But over the course of the novel she is both a heroine and an everywoman. Ursula proves that there are no small decisions in the grand scheme of life. Every move we make has its consequences. The greater the risk, the greater the outcome — something we can all completely understand.
You may recognize Caitlin Doughty’s name from her popular YouTube series (which also runs on Jezebel) “Ask a Mortician.” Doughty is, in fact, a mortician by trade and she has made it her personal mission in life to get people more comfortable about talking about our inevitable demise. She published a memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes , about her entry into the death industry, as a crematory operator in Los Angeles. In an industry that was, until recently, almost completely male-dominated, Doughty knows that her charm and intelligence are absolutely essential to facing prejudice about what women's career choices, and more importantly, what's appropriate for women to talk about in a public forum. Her fearlessness, under the guise of a quirky sense of humor, has made her message — death-positivity — an easier pill to swallow. At times, she says the things you've only thought.
Tayari Jones was born and raised in Georgia and spent most of her life in the South. Though she now resides in the Northeast, her three novels all revolve around life in Atlanta. Her most recent book, Silver Sparrow , tells the story of a bigamist and his two daughters, Dana and Chaurisse, who are desperate to know each other. Though the bigamy is supposed to be a secret, there’s no stopping the two sisters, who know immediately they are related when they meet at a science fair, wearing the exact same coat. Tayari Jones, much like Toni Morrison, is a woman who understands that no matter how complicated, our roots define who we become, and the family ties are in fact the ties that bind.
Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? is a novel that defies categorization in the best way possible. Heti subtitled the book “a novel from life,” which is exactly what it is. The narrator’s name is Sheila and her friends, Sholem and and Margaux, are in fact, Sheila’s friends in real life. Some of the names and details have been changed, of course. The idea of the book is Sheila would like to know “how should a person be?” especially, I might add, if that person would like to be an artist. The book involves an ugly painting contest, one of the most intriguing descriptions of a blowjob maybe ever, and more importantly, a depiction of female friendship that is so genuine — and so recognizable in your own life — it will cut through you like a knife.
Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You , is the story of a Chinese American family living in small town Ohio in the 1970s. When their daughter, Lydia, is found dead, the family’s secrets come bubbling to the surface. Lydia's parents' marriage is mixed-race, and Ng goes deep into the prejudices (some subtle, others brazen) that they face as a couple and as individuals — maybe you'll relate to some of them. Plus, if you grew up under parental pressure, you'll recognize yourself in this book. Ng takes a lens to the idea of the "perfect child" with good grades, lots of friends, scholarships and extracurriculars (think Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) as the truth about Lydia's life shows the intense scrutiny that some children face both at school and in the home.
Like one of Elena Ferrante’s earlier novels, The Days of Abandonment , Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation chronicles a young mother’s days, filled mostly with frustration, boredom, and the kind of revelations that can only come from the seriously sleep-deprived. The book is composed in fragments, almost koan-like “speculations” about her life, that are both devastating and hilarious, often simultaneously. “Three things no one has ever said about me: You make it look so easy. You are very mysterious. You need to take yourself more seriously.” Jenny Offill's extreme honesty about her own struggle as a writer and a mother is totally real, and completely refreshing. The idea of "having it all" is certainly more complicated than it seems.
In 2008, Sarah Manguso published the explosively good memoir The Two Kinds of Decay about a sudden and incredibly rare illness that befell her in college and continued to effect her for nearly all of her 20s. This year she published Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. The book is both a diary and a reflection on keeping a journal, a practice which Manguso has done for nearly 25 years. Like The Two Kinds of Decay, Manguso writes in short fragments. With this book, Manguso shows that what we choose to record should be more than just what's sharable to others on social media. Our diaries are records of who we were, and who we are. Maybe you should pick up that old habit again.