What I’ve Been Reading: Books by Women


Time for an update of what I’ve been reading lately: three recent publications by women writers that are each, in their own way, unusual and engrossing reads.

First up: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, her first novel since The Night Circus, which was a favorite of mine. With The Starless Sea, Morgenstern has written a deeply felt and beautiful paean to story. Every sentence is meticulously crafted to create stunning images. There is a scene in the book that describes a dollhouse sitting in a city crafted of paper and wine bottles on the shores of a confetti sea, each detail of this miniature world lovingly realized. That, in essence, is what this book is, five hundred pages of lovingly realized details constructing a world that is both familiar (at least to constant readers) and absolutely original. The plot is an adventure and a romance, and probably is not as important as the craft. Interspersed between episodes in the main plot are interludes, fairy tales, and snippets of story that all eventually have bearing on the whole. I actually enjoyed these interludes and their side characters more than the main plot. For me, the characters in the main story seemed like set pieces, and although free will was emphasized, they did behave like pawns in a game. It was not these characters who were important but where they went and what they saw. This is a story about storytelling, and characters in stories do not have free will–only the author (or story sculptor) does. Never mind about the plot, though. The exquisite writing, the imagery, and the imagined world of the Starless Sea are more than enough to carry this novel, at least for me.

Next, Circe by Madeline Miller, her follow-up to The Song of Achilles: the story of Circe, the naiad witch best known for the part she played in The Odyssey but who was tangentially related to many other myths, including Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and Medea, Daedalus and Icarus, and Scylla and Charybdis. So this novel also functions as a nice overview of Greek myth, yet from a different point of view. Circe’s character drives the story, and her evolution from a young person just discovering her powers through to mature and self-reliant woman yet struggling with her immortality serves as its arc. Some of the people she encounters seem too good to be true (Daedalus), but the portrayals of Odysseus and Penelope in particular were three-dimensional and human. The end surprised me, and I found it both beautiful and powerful.

Finally, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I generally distrust sequels, especially those published thirty-five years later on the heels of a successful television series based on the first book. But Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors, and I’m happy to say that she did not phone this in. It’s very different from The Handmaid’s Tale, which I think was the best choice. Set mostly in Gilead fifteen years later, it alternates between three points of view: a young girl being raised to be a Wife, another young girl living in Canada, and the infamous Aunt Lydia. How smart Atwood was to allow Lydia to tell her own story, as it humanizes her without watering down her character. The Testaments takes a broader view of Atwood’s imagined dystopia, showing us both how Gilead came to be and how it came to fall. While there were lots of parts that made me feel sick and angry–mostly because Atwood makes me believe this could really happen–this book also made me feel hope. And I appreciate that.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to pick up one of these lovely books, but no matter what’s on your nightstand, I wish you happy reading!

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