Today’s reading list is a roundup of badass women–but what does “badass” mean exactly? These are women who don’t conform to the norms that have been set out for women as a whole. They may seem intimidating or–that worst of all literary sins–unlikable. These women follow their own path, make sometimes questionable choices, risk screwing up or being called “nasty,” and ultimately discover their own internal power. They are not always comfortable to read about, and that makes them fascinating characters. I found each one inspiring, in her own way.
1. The Power by Naomi Alderman: This novel asks what if a power awakens in women, an innate ability to generate electric power, so that they can defend themselves and hurt other people, so that they, in just a few years, become more powerful than men? I found this book exciting, challenging, uncomfortable, sometimes horrific, and just thought-provoking on so many levels: our assumptions about gender roles, about power structures, about religion, about history and who writes it. And it’s also just a really good story, with lots of characters you care about and back-stabbing and power plays and revolution.
2. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: Set mostly in Gilead (of The Handmaid’s Tale) 15 years later, the novel 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. She does the right thing, but–depending on your point of view–for the wrong reasons; revenge is what motivates her, and her long con is delicious.
3. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Set in Lagos, Nigeria, this novel is about a woman whose sister is literally a serial killer, and she is forced to clean up her sister’s messes. It’s about loyalty to family, abuse, and the shallowness of men who “only want a pretty face.”
4. The New Me by Hallie Butler: Millie is a temp office worker who is just in every way an unlikable person, and she doesn’t seem to like much of anyone in return. She begins a program to improve herself, but with a life as devoid of meaning as that of the modern-day inhabitant of the cubicle farm, Millie’s odds of success aren’t good.
5. Scribe by Alyson Hagy: The unnamed narrator makes her living in a lawless land by writing letters that serve as confessions for the people who request them. A man named Hendricks comes to her with a request for an unusual letter, which sets her on a quest. The writing in Scribe is lovely, recalling the cadence of a folktale told aloud. The story had the sense of a legend, with a touch of magical realism.
6. The End We Start From by Megan Hunter: This is an account, narrated in poetic snippets, of a cataclysmic flooding of London just as the unnamed narrator goes into labor. She, her husband, and her baby become refugees. The narrator is less concerned with giving details of this apocalyptic event than with observing how her son grows and reaches his milestones, just as all new mothers do. The effect is a reminder of what’s important, a cutting through of the detritus of modern life to the basics of just being alive.
7. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: It can be difficult to empathize with abuse survivors; those who haven’t experienced abuse often wonder why they don’t just leave. Machado makes the nebulous but horrific experience of emotional abuse feel palpably real. Her memoir also exposes the hidden world of women abusing women in lesbian relationships and examines without flinching all the uncomfortable questions that raises.
8. Circe by Madeline Miller: 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. 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.
9. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: The unnamed narrator of this novel has a plan that perhaps we may have all fantasized about at some point: to go to sleep for a long period and then wake up as a blank slate, to start over again from scratch. The unnamed narrator of this book is intensely unlikeable, but yet she is so relatable, and I think she is very honest, which can make for hard reading. This is not a book for everyone, but if it does connect with you, it will connect with you hard.
10. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: This novel takes place in an alternate United States (or in the near future?), when a Personhood Amendment to the Constitution has made abortion and in vitro fertilization illegal. It alternates among four women, who are named but who, in their narratives, refer to themselves by role rather than name. Zumas explores the interior worlds of these women through the lens of the restrictions placed on them by society, and even though her premise is somewhat dystopian, it also feels all too possible. But Zumas does not make this a story of either hopelessness or victimhood. These women may struggle with indecision, but they do have agency, and they do take charge of their own lives.