Powell’s Books recommends 25 women to read before you die

powells-thumbnail  powells-city-of-books

The staff at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, one of the country’s (and the world’s!) best bookstores, have compiled a list of 25 women writers you need to read. I haven’t read all of these writers myself, but I can certainly vouch for many of them being worth your valuable reading time (Adichie, Armstrong, Atwood, Didion, Erdrich, Hempel, Solnit, Tartt).

As if you didn’t already have enough to read, here are 25 authors who have published well over a hundred books among them.

You can read the full article here.

As with any such list, the results are at least partially random (there should be little dispute about the inclusion of writers like George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Erdrich). Just off the top of my head, I would add Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Elena Ferrante, Ali Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lauren Groff, and Karen Russell. Every such list is guaranteed to be a very personal set of preferences.

Who do you think should be on this list? Reply in the Comments below. 


How to Stop the Hecklers (of Your Own Mind): Wise Words from Women Writers

Jen Grow  My Life as a Mermaid


By Jen Grow

What is the most difficult part of writing? This question came up at a recent Q&A where I had the good fortune to be a featured writer. The other writers on the panel, all women, talked about the insecurity of a terrible first draft, the anxiety that comes from being lost in a plotline, or the frustration with never-ending revisions. For me, the most difficult part of writing is the internal battle with perfectionism and self-doubt. It’s hard to have faith in the process of writing when you’re being heckled by your own mind.

In some ways, all of us on the panel were saying the same thing, calling it by different names. It’s not uncommon to become discouraged. Frustration, insecurity, uncertainty and self-doubt are occupational hazards that have attacked some of the most talented writers I know, stopping them from writing altogether. For those of us not blessed with healthy egos (meaning, healthy, not big), it takes fortitude to persevere. Also, the subtle insanity of relentless hope.

While there are lots of ways to fortify oneself, the best thing I’ve found that doesn’t cause a hangover in the morning is to drink in the words of other writers who have persevered. I collect quotes, especially the wisdom of other women, and reread them when I’m feeling especially defeated. Here are a few gems that have kept me going:

“Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it.” This instruction from Anne Lamott is helpful when I feel as though I’m somehow lacking because I can’t write a brilliant story (or, in this case, blog post) from the very first word. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart — your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.” That’s why I was born? Cool. True or not, it makes me feel better to think it.

What happens after I’ve written my shitty first draft is this: I distract myself with eleven hundred other things. Not just time-wasting things to procrastinate, but necessary tasks that semi-responsible adults do to remain semi-responsible. Brenda Ueland gives me permission to do otherwise:

“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first — at least, for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous to everybody else. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom.”

I love that she uses the phrase “ailments of discouragement.” Thank you, Brenda, for telling me the cat litter can wait and that it’s OK if I wear the same clothes three days in a row. No matter how often I put off loading and unloading the dishwasher, eat popcorn for dinner, or consciously choose not to binge on Netflix, there’s still, always, the intense pressure I put on myself to write more, produce more, publish more. Just look at all my other writer friends on Facebook. Seems like they’re publishing best-selling, award-winning works every other day.

“If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones — what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?)”

Yes, Lorrie Moore, I am raising my fist. Thank you for acknowledging that this is not easy, that it takes time, that I’m just like you. I could use a hausfrau, or maybe a clone — one that goes to work full-time while I stay home and write. On a bad day, this might be a cue for self-pity, except for the words of three very wise women.

Doris Lessing: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

George Eliot : “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

And Alice Walker: The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 

Thank you, ladies, for reminding me again and again to tap into my own power. I grew up in a working-class family and had limited ideas about what was possible. Even though I nursed my creative aspirations diligently, I believed that success was reserved for another breed of person and could never happen for me. It took many years to realize I was wrong — wrong in a good way. Fortunately, I was in great company with Sharon Olds: I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

With the great wisdom of other women to guide me, I still question my place in things from time to time. Not as much as I used to, and not with as much fervor, but still. I think it is the condition of every writer, male or female. So I’ll end with this quote from Andrea Barrett:

“I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all. No great loss if that had been the case, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Fortunately, for us, it did not work out that way.


Jen Grow’s debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, won the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. [My review is here.] She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (City Lit Press, 2010). She co-authored the book Seeking the Spirit (Morehouse Publishing, 2006) with Harry Brunett. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and their zoo of cats and dogs. 

Author Michelle Brafman on “literary mamas,” writing mentors at the right time and place

Michelle Brafman   washing-the-dead

When my daughter was six years old, she desperately wanted to jump off the diving board at our community pool. All summer, she eyed her friends climbing up the ladder, walking the plank of the board, and flying into the water with glee. I tried everything to help her muster up the courage to take that leap. On one of the last days of the summer, my husband took her to the pool without me. I’d been staying home with the kids full time and had treated myself to a few hours alone in a dark movie theater. When I walked into the house and found a huge smile on my daughter’s face, I knew. “How did it happen?” I asked her. “Mrs. M.,” she said.

I was feeling pretty zen after indulging in a matinee, a bucket of popcorn, and a Diet Coke, but I still I felt a twinge. The big-hearted Mrs. M., now my friend Amy, simply walked next to my girl, held her hand, and offered the right words of encouragement before they jumped into the pool together. Boom. My daughter went off the board again and again. And I wasn’t there.

Sometimes we must rely on other people to mother us. And this is a very good thing.

My novel Washing the Dead is about a woman whose mother has an affair, causes the family to be exiled from their tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, and then takes off. Half the book tells the story of Barbara Pupnick’s spiral into a dark place, and the other half recounts her journey back to the emotional and spiritual home her mother had burned down. But this is not the story I’m telling today.

Barbara survives her mother’s abandonment, largely because her former preschool teacher steps in to mother her. During her final year of high school, Barbara volunteers in her teacher’s classroom, babysits her son, and on the nights her mother sneaks out with her lover, accepts a warm meal and help with her calculus. Barbara’s mentor even takes her shopping for underwear.

This case of substitute mothering is extreme, but as my daughter’s diving board experience taught me, we find mother figures when and where we need them. My mother is a terrific reader and has dried my tears after some of my toughest rejections, but I find my most productive literary nurturing elsewhere. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all mother. What a relief for all of us!

My literary mamas are writing instructors, savvy readers, and/or writer-friends (actually male and female) who can read me and for me without any skin in the game. They might wonder while critiquing my fiction if in real life I’ve stolen a family heirloom from a dead aunt or lied to my husband, but they won’t assume it’s because I wasn’t raised well, and they won’t ask. They’ll simply probe, sometimes gently and other times firmly. They’ll hold my hand while I venture into what my friend Dylan Landis calls “the basement,” the deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

And when my literary mamas read my memoir pieces, they’ll shine a light on my blind spots and take a tuning fork to the notes I’m not hitting, and I’ll thank them. We won’t do that messy dance we do with our mothers, where we ask them if they like our new haircut and they tell us, verbally or not, and then we get offended. My tone deafness won’t embarrass or anger them, and they won’t hedge about my bangs.

My literary mamas will listen to my publication woes, but they won’t take my rejection personally and rip apart the character of an agent or an editor they’ve never met. I’ll move on more quickly that way. They’ll wait for me to vent, and then they’ll brainstorm and sometimes make introductions. I’ll seek their guidance in writing query letters or blurb requests (with one literary mama I take straight dictation). They’ll throw gorgeous book parties after readings where they’ve beamed with perhaps not the pride of a real mama, but a joy devoid of the worry that I’ve written about them or that I will somehow humiliate myself.

I learn from my literary mamas, writers whose stories have taught me alternative ways to think about love, grief, redemption, and motherhood: Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Faye Moskowitz, Amy Bloom, Rebecca Brown, Lidia Yuknavitch.

The common denominator for all literary mamas on and off the page is that in their own way they inspire me to serve in this capacity for someone else, be it a student or a friend. The cycle continues, making me a proud literary grandmama.

Over the years, I’ve periodically thanked my friend Amy for teaching my daughter to jump off that diving board, and she’s looked at me quizzically, perhaps wondering why I’ve held on to this anecdote for so long. My daughter has since found other secondary mamas — teachers, coaches, summer camp counselors, and random adults — who believe in her, who will coax her into taking various leaps. And I will continue to be grateful to them for doing for her what I can’t in that moment, even as a small part of me will be wishing that I could.

Michelle Brafman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at JHU’s MA in Writing Program, George Washington University, the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis’ New Directions Program, and workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. She is the founder of Yeah Write, a writing coaching business. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children.

Guest blogger Lisa Gornick on being read to: The Pleasures and Perils of Audiobooks


Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/FS&G, 2013), which will be published in paperback on September 2, and A Private Sorcery (Algonquin Books, 2002). She holds a B.A. from Princeton, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale, and is a graduate of the writing program at N.Y.U. and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia.

I’ve never been in a book group  — I’ve always preferred to read what is idiosyncratically imperative to me — but a few years ago, I joined a group with three other writers in which we read like mechanics with an eye to how the book is put together: structure, point of view, passage of time, unfolding of plot. For our last book, one of the group members suggested The Goldfinch. I was knee-deep in a draft of my new novel and, as the date approached, I still had a terrifying 700 pages to read. As a solution, I decided to download the Audible version, something — Luddite, physical book reader that I am — I’d never done before.

Within minutes,  I was hooked. The narrator, who my eleven year old recognized as David Pittu, reader of the wildly popular children’s 39 Clues series, is an astoundingly good actor. I fell in love with Pittu’s interpretations of potty-mouth Boris and twangy Xandra and adenoidal Andy, took to walking everywhere so I could justify more time listening, and then took to listening while reading!

Of course, Donna Tartt has to be credited for creating these characters and some of the best dialogue I’ve read (or maybe should say heard) — but without the child-like pleasure of being read to and the child-like state of mind that put me in (by an actor, skilled at reading to children), I might have resonated more strongly with some of the novel’s critics who’ve objected to the sloppiness (see Francine Prose’s powerful critique) and the fairy tale quality of the story.  Not under Pittu’s spell, I would have been more bothered by the novel’s murky philosophical underpinnings that rest on the answer to the question: If a building is burning and you have to choose between saving the cat and the Rembrandt, what would you do?

Bereft after finishing The Goldfinch­­ — more, I have to admit, because I missed being read to during dish washing and teeth brushing than because I missed Theo Decker — I downloaded Nicole Kidman narrating To the Lighthouse. I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms. Kidman  (especially after seeing her post-Botox face), but I loved her brave performance in the movie adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s tour de force, The Hours. Well, Ms. Kidman, it turns out, is a sensitive and subtle reader — I felt as though I were seeing the brutal fractured beauty of life through Woolf’s eyes —  and apparently has been an ardent one since childhood when her parchment skin forced her to stay indoors with Dostoevsky rather than going to the Australian beach.

Oh, no, what to do after this was over? Out of order, but still the obvious choice: Mrs. Dalloway. By now, I understood that who narrates is key — and when I went to purchase my Audible version, it occurred to me to sample a few of the readers. Sorry, Annette Bening. Though I loved you in The Kids are All Right and American Beauty, you are not my Clarissa. But the wonderful British actress, Juliet Stevenson: What a lark! What a plunge! as Clarissa might say.

What’s next? I seem to be on a classics jag, so I think it will be Middlemarch, which I haven’t revisited since college. But, I’m going to read it to myself. Delicious as being read to is, it’s not the same as being alone with a book. There are reasons why children begin reading to themselves — including that they want to experience a book without an adult’s intervening interpretation. No matter the listener’s age, no matter how extraordinary the narrator, he or she intrudes on the private exchange between writer and audience, a sacred space, all the more so in our times when solitude requires conscious effort.

Turning The Goldfinch over to David Pittu to read to me was a short cut — not just with respect to my time, but also with respect to the work of reading: imagining bodies and how they resonate through voices, interpreting punctuation and where the stresses and pauses for breath lie, viscerally absorbing the density of print on a page and the presence or absence of white space. Listening to someone else read a book aloud means letting someone else do a good chunk of that work and, as is so often the case with short cuts, it is the short-cut taker who ultimately loses: fails to develop or atrophies. The truth is, after only a month’s foray into listening to books, I can sense my reading muscle slackening.

Juliet Stevenson reads — in 36 hours — Middlemarch.  Oh, I am tempted.  What a lark!  But as Clarissa would say, No! No! No!

Top 10 Popular Woman Authors I’ve Never Read

Today’s Top 10 Tuesday topic, suggested by the lovely Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish blog, is popular authors you (somehow) have never read. Since my blog is about women authors, I’ve limited my list by gender. I’ve encountered several pieces like this in recent weeks; the gist seems to be that even well-read people (including famous writers) have not read everyone people assume they’ve read, and in fact have many key gaps in their personal reading history. As many authors and books as I’ve read, there are far more I haven’t read. And that’s the way it will always be. I’ll be interested to read your comments and suggestions.

Julia Alvarez

1. Julia Alvarez — While I have read other Latina novelists, for some reason I have yet to read a book by the highly-regarded Alvarez. I recently picked up a copy of what is said to be her best book, In the Time of Butterflies, which sounds like a gripping read (it’s set in the Dominican Republic in 1960 during the Trujillo dictatorship and is based on the true story of the three Mirabal sisters, who were murdered for their part in a plot to overthrow the government). Everything I know about Alvarez and this book tells me I will love it.

Margaret Atwood

2. Margaret Atwood — I’m mystified by this omission in my reading history and somewhat ashamed to admit it. I’ve had a copy of Alias Grace on my living room bookcase for well over a decade. My wife read and loved Cat’s Eye many years ago (I think I gave it to her). I’ve read so much about Atwood’s recent speculative fiction trilogy (Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Madd Adam), but have yet to dive in to what sounds like a series I would love.

Emily and Charlotte Bronte

3. Emily Bronte and Charlotte Bronte — This is a two-fer! What can I say? I studiously avoided Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as “women’s books” for ages, even though I was an English major. (Same for Jane Austen.) I read Austen for the first time in the last five years and loved her writing. I know how great WH and JE are supposed to be, and I trust the judgment of many people who swear they are two of the greatest books ever written. So I WILL read them.

Joan Didion

4. Joan Didion — Unless you count her famous essay, “The Santa Ana” from her early essay collection, Slouching to Bethlehem, I am still a Didion virgin. I haven’t read Slouching or her recent bestsellers, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and Blue Nights, about the illness and death of her daughter, Quintana Roo. I need to remedy that, don’t I?

George Eliot

5. George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) — Like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Eliot always seemed daunting in terms of both her writing style and the length of her books. If I were going to read one of her novels, it was going to be a serious commitment. (Ironically, I didn’t feel this way with the works of Dickens, about whom the same things could be said.) Then I read that Jane Smiley thinks Eliot’s Middlemarch is the best novel ever written. And I keep coming across other writers raving about Eliot and this book in particular. So I need to make a commitment and read Middlemarch at long last.

Jane Hamilton

6. Jane Hamilton — At one point in the 90s, everyone seemed to be reading and talking about Hamilton’s A Map of the World. The plot sounded compelling but perhaps too intense for someone who loves babies and children too much. Just thinking about the premise made me shudder and say, “Could you imagine?” Her previous novel, The Book of Ruth, also caught fire. My wife read both books and recommended them. I’ve sort of lost track of Hamilton in recent years, but I probably need to reconsider her work.

Shirley Hazzard

7. Shirley HazzardThe Transit of Venus is a modern classic, and many writers speak glowingly of her writing. Someone gave me a copy of Great Fire when it came out, and I intended to read it but never got around to it. Recently, author Roxana Robinson exhorted me to read Hazzard, starting with Venus, so I picked up a copy. So I’m one step closer to reading her!

Grace Paley

8. Grace Paley — I wasn’t even familiar with Paley’s name until a few years ago. Recently her name seems to be everywhere. She is listed as an inspiration by several writers whose books I’ve read in the past year (as diverse as Ann Patchett and Leora Skolkin-Smith). Her name shows up in book reviews and interviews on a regular basis. And my wife just bought her Collected Stories.  From what I’ve read, I have every reason to believe I will both enjoy and admire Paley’s writing. Just gotta get to it!

Carol Shields

9. Carole Shields — Shields came to my attention when her novel The Stone Diaries was published to great acclaim and sales in 1995. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize that year. As with Jane Hamilton, I was always aware of her but never read her. Then she seemed to fall below the radar in the last decade or so. But with my newfound love of fellow Canadian Alice Munro, I became interested in Canadian literature and Shields came to mind. I just bought her Collected Stories and plan to read a couple stories in between each novel I read. I suspect I’m going to regret taking so long to discover her writing.

Alice Walker

10. Alice Walker — As with Joan Didion, I’ve only read a single story by Walker (“Everyday Use” is in the sophomore English textbook I teach). I know all about The Color Purple but never read the book or saw the movie. And while I know she is well-regarded as a novelist, feminist, and civil rights activist, her subsequent novels haven’t caught my attention. If you’re a Walker fan, which book should I read as an introduction to her work (Once, Meridian, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Possessing the Secret of Joy, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down)?