Friday, March 8, 2013

An International Women's Day Inspired Book List



In honor of International Women's Day today, I thought I would put together a post with some books that I think are especially worthwhile for what they convey about women's and girls issues, both in the United States and throughout the world. (I will admit, this list is more United States-centric than I would prefer.) As regular blog readers know, women and girls issues are a particular passion of mine. 

Entire blogs could be (and probably are) devoted to the many books about this topic - and awhile back, we book bloggers had the Women Unbound reading challenge which was really interesting, enlightening, and fun.  

I've only included those that I've read and written reviews of. I know there are many, many more from where these 12 came from. These are excerpts of my previously published here reviews; the links take you to the full review and the italics are quotes from the book itself. They're in no order, except alphabetical, with fiction first. (Except for the last one, which I added at the last minute. Whatever.) 

1. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood 
The Handmaid's Tale is a thought-provoking book, about so many things: women's rights, the influence of religion in society, relationships, politics, identity, betrayal, forgiveness, power and control. There are so many themes running through these pages. I know that's been a criticism of this novel, that Atwood is trying too hard to have the book serve as commentary on too many issues. But that's part of what makes a novel a classic, in my view, and I truly believe that The Handmaid's Tale is definitely a classic. 

“My name isn't Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it's forbidden. I tell myself it doesn't matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I'll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that's survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.” 

"That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on." 

Sound familiar? 


2. Because I Am Furniture, by Thalia Chaltas
On the second page of Thalia Chaltas' first novel Because I Am Furniture, a tumult of an emotional young adult novel written in poetry, you find this:

When the garage door goes up
he's home.
We close up conversation
and scuttle off like crabs
each to our room - 

Shut the door.
Shut the door. 
Shut the door. 

Mom alone in the kitchen 
where she should be
before the garage door goes down 
and we are locked in hell.


3. The Heart is Not a Size, by Beth Kephart 
People disappear, go missing, vanish without a trace. It happens everyday, in communities big and small, rich and poor, around the corner and across the globe. Sometimes we're unaware of this, and sometimes we know exactly what we don't want to - or are afraid to - admit to ourselves and to others. It is then that this knowledge takes hold, becomes suffocating, too much for hearts to bear.

Such is the case with Georgia, the teenage narrator of Beth Kephart's exquisite novel,The Heart Is Not a Size, set amid the stifling heat of Juarez, Mexico. There, in the community of Anapra, exists the ghosts of las muertas de Juarez ("the dead women of Juarez"), this horrible true-life phenomenon that has been occurring for years where women routinely disappear and are found (when they are found) murdered and often disfigured.


4. She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb

She's Come Undone is a novel about Dolores Price, a child of divorce living with her mother and grandmother in the 1950s. The three live in the grandmother's home. Dolores' "undoing" comes at the hands of Jack Speight, one of her grandmother's tenants, who befriends 13 year old Dolores and rapes her. Lamb's prose in this scene is searing, hot stake-through-the-heart writing. 

Dolores carries this albatross of the rape with her, understandably so, throughout the next several decades of her life. As she does, I found myself alternately cheering her on. I so desperately wanted something good to happen to Dolores, for her to heal emotionally, for her to find happiness.




As the title promises, Collins truly does pack 400 years of American women's history into what is a chunkster of a book. Make no mistake, though: this is no dry textbook. Collins presents a comprehensive and thorough view of American women's history in a way that is incredibly informative, engaging, shocking, and entertaining. At some points, I couldn't put this down.

Beginning with the very first settlers at Jamestown, Collins traces the history and the stories of strong, formidable women through an ever-changing America during the Revolutionary War, slavery, pre-and post-Civil War, the pioneer days, the Gilded Age, the Depression. There are the names from the history books: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Carrie Nation, Annie Oakley, Margaret Sanger and countless others - but whose individual stories and accomplishments we may not have ever quite completely learned or fully remember. Collins brings all of them - the dolls, drudges, helpmates, and heroines all back to life on these pages for her reader. (The title comes from a Susan B. Anthony quote: "When I was young if a girl married poor, she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealthy, she became a pet and a doll.")

6. Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win, by Anne Kornblut
In the beginning, back in the good old days of 2007, I was a Hillary supporter. Unbeknownst to me, I was somewhat in the minority demographically. Kornblut explains why.  (Although, I don't think I meet the standard for "young woman," but just play along with me here, 'kay?) 

"[Young women] considered themselves postfeminists, to the extent they thought about it, and preferred not to view the world in terms of gender. Supporting Barack Obama was proof of their liberation: they were free to choose whomever they favored for president, unburdened by any old-fashioned notions of loyalty or sisterhood, a sign that women were now diverse and evolved enough to disagree. 

And if young women felt fully liberated - or were even totally oblivious to the barriers that had once existed, in many cases before they were born - it was hard to blame them. Nothing in 2008 felt unequal. Women had worked alongside men as peers in every profession for decades, with discrimination and sexual harrassment laws on the books. Women were heads of corporations and universities, as senators and governors and chiefs of police .... Every year seemed to bring a new achievement, making the next one less remarkable." (pg. 82-83) 

7. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Half the Sky is a transformative book.  It is one that changes people after reading it, if only by knowing more about our world and those in it. As difficult of a read that it is, it is also hopeful.  Kristof and WuDunn show how it is possible for everyday, average people to make a difference through simple acts.  Half the Sky should be required reading for every person, just as it is at some colleges.  It is that important of a book.  

8. The Generosity Plan: Sharing Your Time, Treasure, and Talent to Shape the World, by Kathy LeMay 

We all have the power within us to become a philanthropist, to support the causes we care about regardless of how much or how little we have to give.  It doesn't matter if we have five million dollars or five dollars, if we have five days a week or five minutes a day.  What matters is being bold enough to take that first step toward becoming your own definition of a philanthropist.

"Boldness asks you to come out of your comfort zone, if only for a moment.  How do you know if you're stepping into boldness? You know you are being your best bold self when you feel excited, nervous, and hopeful in the same moment. You know you are being your best bold self when the action you are about to take will change you inside. Again, bold doesn't have to be big and flashy, but it should be daring for you. When you are bold for you and your own life, you can feel the change. When you are bold for something bigger than you, you make change." (pg. 147-148) 

What if we want to be bold, to do something more meaningful with our gifts, but don't know how to get started - or even what causes we are drawn to? Kathy LeMay shows us how.  She takes the reader step-by-step through examples in her personal life and others, and from there, the reader begins to learn how to create his or her personal generosity plan based on causes and issues that you were attracted to as a child, or ones that were important to your family, or those impacting your life now. 


9. Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, by Leonard Sax 

Sax identifies sexual identity, the cyberbubble, obsessions, and environmental toxins as four factors that are causing more girls than ever before to become depressed and to turn toward self-destructive behaviors.  He presents each issue in detail, with supporting case stories from his psychology practice as well as visits to schools throughout the United States and all over the world.  While these issues are familiar ones, the insights Sax provides were surprising to me and are ones that make this a must-read for anyone raising a girl or working with girls in any capacity.  


10. The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence, by Rachel Simmons  

In The Curse of the Good Girl, which I found incredibly well-written, informative and enlightening, Rachel Simmons draws from her experience as founder of the Girls Leadership Institute and her extensive work with tween and teenage girls. In explaining this phenomenon, she writes that


"The Curse of the Good Girl erodes girls' ability to know, say, and manage a complete range of feelings. It urges girls to be perfect, giving them a troubled relationship to integrity and failure. It expects girls to be selfless, limiting the expression of their needs. It demands modesty, depriving girls of permission to commit to their strengths and goals. It diminishes assertive body language, quieting voices and weakening handshakes. It reaches across all areas of girls' lives: in their interactions with boys and other girls, at school, at home, and in extracurricular life. The Curse of the Good Girl cuts to the core of authentic selfhood, demanding that girls curb the strongest feelings and desires that form the patchwork of a person." (pg. 3)

It begins with society's perception of what a good girl is - a little blue eyed girl who is quiet, has no opinions on things (but speaks well), does everything right, is popular and wealthy, organized and intelligent, has a boyfriend and tons of friends, a Barbie with natural hair who doesn't show any skin. (This is from a list of qualities of a Good Girl, as listed on pg. 2.)

By striving for these impossible and unrealistic qualities, girls fall into life-long patterns of behavior where they begin to do things like end their sentences with questions? Because they aren't confident of their thoughts and ideas?

11. Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World, by Linda Tarr-Whelan 

If you're interested in and an advocate for women's issues (for lack of a better word, for these are everyone's issues), then much of the information in Women Lead the Waydoesn't come as much of a shock or surprise. Most of us know statistics like these, or perhaps guessed at some of them. They are well worth repeating, because they need to be kept in the forefront (this book was published in 2009):

From pages 50-53:

- Women now earn an average of 58% of bachelor's and master's degrees. 
- The sales generated by women-owned businesses equal the GDP of China. 
- Would you believe the United States is 27th in the world in women's advancement? 
- Women now make up 24% of state legislators - up from 20% fifteen years ago.
- The U.S. Congress is made up of 83% men and 17% women.  This representation of women places the United States 69th in the world. 
- Women make 80% of consumer decisions in this country. 
- It will take 73 years to reach parity between men and women on corporate boards in our premier Fortune 500 firms. 

- Could you use another $440,000?  The wage gap really does add up.  Mid-career women today are missing out on close to one-half million dollars when you compare the average earnings of college-educated women and men employed full-time and full-year who were twenty-five to twenty-nine in 1984 and are now in their mid-forties.  

(My note:  I'm kind of wondering if there is, perhaps, a typo there?  I mean, I'm 41 and in 1984, I might have acted like I was in my mid-twenties and wanted to be, but in reality I was only 15. Just sayin'.) 

- Only 20% of married women employees - virtually all of them professionals or managers - making $75,000 or more have a nonworking spouse.  

In the first half of her book, Linda Tarr-Whelan presents the issues matter-of-factly, with numbers galore, and champions the idea of The 30% Solution.  That's the premise that in any organization, women should comprise 30% of the decision-making power because only then is when real change can happen due to women's voices being heard. 

12. Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, by Peggy Orenstein


"The first Princess items, released with no marketing plan, no focus groups, no advertising, sold as if blessed by a fairy godmother. Within a year, sales had soared to $300 million. By 2009, they were at $4 billion. Four billion dollars! There are more than twenty-six thousand Disney Princess items on the market, a number which, particularly when you exclude cigarette, liquor, cars, and antidepressants, is staggering." (pg. 14)  "Of course, girls are not buying the 24/7 princess culture all on their own. So the question is not only why they like it (which is fairly obvious) but what it offers their parents." (pg. 22)

Yes, what indeed?

That's just one of the psychological factors that Orenstein explores in this book that is a must-read for any parent or relative or teacher of young girls, which I found absolutely fascinating. 


A few others that I read but didn't write reviews of:

Living History, by Hillary Clinton
The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women, by Susan J. Douglas
Poems from the Women's Movement, edited by Honor Moore
Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected Journeys on the Way to Motherhood, by Naomi Wolf

What other International Women's Day inspired titles (fiction or nonfiction) would you add to this list?


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3 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Very cool list -- some I've read and others I'll have to check out.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I loved this post!
I've already read some of these books (Half the Sky, Curse of the Good Girl) but others are new to me and look very interesting.

Nikki Steele said...

I've heard great things about Cinderella Ate My Daughter and really want to read it. I love your list here, you did a great job with it!