25 Amazing Books by Women You Need to Read

Photo illustrations, Mental Floss. Backgrounds: iStock. Covers: courtesy of the publisher.
Photo illustrations, Mental Floss. Backgrounds: iStock. Covers: courtesy of the publisher.

It's time to do some spring cleaning, dust off the bookshelf, and plot which stories to add to your reading list. Whether you're looking to discover a new author or find an unread title by an old favorite, these 25 books by women would be welcome additions to your collection.

1. BAD FEMINIST // ROXANE GAY

BAD FEMINIST, ROXANE GAY

Roxane Gay is a New York Times best-selling author who has written everything from novels to cultural essays to comic books—in short, she's a badass. Bad Feminist—a term she uses for herself—is her collection of personal essays (backed up with external sources) about the daily conflicts that women encounter being feminists in our complicated, culture-consuming world. She approaches each topic with a healthy balance of humor and criticism, acknowledging the messy, flawed nature of trying to live by an ever-changing set of feminist principles.

Find It: Amazon

2. MEN WE REAPED // JESMYN WARD

MEN WE REAPED, JESMYN WARD

After Jesmyn Ward's second novel, Salvage the Bones, took home the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011, she turned to her own life for the 2013 memoir Men We Reaped. It's a devastating account of black lives lost to drugs, accidents, or suicide, all in her tiny Mississippi hometown. Telling the stories of five men she knew in reverse chronological order while weaving in chronological chapters about her own childhood and coming of age, it all leads to the heartbreaking death of her brother.

Find It: Amazon

3. TEXT ME WHEN YOU GET HOME: THE EVOLUTION AND TRIUMPH OF MODERN FEMALE FRIENDSHIP // KAYLEEN SCHAEFER

TEXT ME WHEN YOU GET HOME, KAYLEEN SCHAEFER

Kayleen Schaefer admits early on in Text Me When You Get Home that she is a reformed mean girl. As someone who used to view other women solely as competition, her book about the incredible, complicated bonds of female friendship is relatable, familiar, and subverts the false notion that women are predisposed to hating each other.

Find It: Amazon

4. LIKE THE SINGING COMING OFF THE DRUMS // SONIA SANCHEZ

LIKE THE SINGING COMING OFF THE DRUMS, SONIA SANCHEZ

Sonia Sanchez's 1998 collection of love poems is romantic and sexy. Her poems take various forms, including tanka and haiku, and with lines like "I breathe you and become high," Sanchez invites you to bask in their lovely brevity while entreating you to turn the page to the next one. The musicality of her poems ("i dreamt i was tangoing with / you, you held me so close / we were like the singing coming off the drums") is kinetic and shows why The New York Times once referred to her as "the spiritual mother of spoken word for a hip-hop generation." (Sanchez did, after all, dedicate this book to Tupac Shakur and his activist mother, Afeni Shakur.)

Find It: Amazon

5. DIVING INTO THE WRECK // ADRIENNE RICH

DIVING INTO THE WRECK, ADRIENNE RICH

Adrienne Rich's collection of poems feels as relevant today as it must have when it was released in 1973. When it was announced she would split the National Book Award for poetry with Allen Ginsberg, Rich declined the award as an individual and instead accepted it on behalf of all women, speaking to the deeply feminist and political nature of her work. Her 2012 New York Times obituary called her "a poet of towering reputation and towering rage"; after reading the titular poem, it would be impossible to disagree.

Find It: Amazon

6. SATAN SAYS // SHARON OLDS

Sharon Olds won a Pulitzer for 2012's Stag's Leap, but her first collection of poetry, Satan Says, from 1980, set the tone for her acclaimed career as a writer of incredibly personal poems who can tackle themes like sex, trauma, and abuse with honesty and aplomb. Fellow award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker called it "a daring and elegant first book," and its straightforward prose and frankness quickly made Satan Says college curriculum material.

Find It: Amazon

7. PACHINKO // MIN JIN LEE

Min Jin Lee's epic Pachinko was one of the most celebrated books of 2017, and with good reason. This novel, Lee's second, chronicles the lives of four generations of a Korean family who immigrate to Japan. Owning pachinko parlors, a slot-machine-style game popular in Japan, is one of the only ways for the Korean immigrants to rise in economic standing. Lee's ability to keep the reader captivated through each new generation is a testament to her ability to craft detailed and nuanced characters who resonate.

Find It: Amazon

8. HOMEGOING // YAA GYASI

Yaa Gyasi's historical novel begins in the 18th century with two African sisters and follows the lives and struggles of multiple generations of their descendants. The family progresses forward one chapter at a time, each focusing on a different generation and contextualizing their lives based on where their family line was headed—one sister married a British official and stayed in Africa, while the other was captured and sold into American slavery. Each subsequent character is so incredibly well developed that closing their chapter and leaving them behind hurts a little every time.

Find It: Amazon

9. THE ANIMATORS // KAYLA RAE WHITAKER

The Animators, Kayla Rae Whitaker's 2017 debut novel, joins the pantheon of books about complex female friendship. The story focuses on the bond between two talented and creative women who meet in college and become successful collaborators as adults. The relationship between Sharon and Mel is as intense and messy as it is funny and inspirational, and their artistic failures and achievements can sometimes feel like a third friend.

Find It: Amazon

10. A LITTLE LIFE // HANYA YANAGIHARA

Over the course of Hanya Yanagihara's 2015 novel, an unlikely crew of college friends—Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB—become such indelible characters that you'll be thinking about them long after you've finished reading. While each of the boys becomes wildly successful in his own field, there is a darkness that looms due to a mysterious past trauma suffered by Jude. Yanagihara, who uses this book to examine the role of male friendship, once described the novel as "a fairy tale set in a contemporary time and place"—but consider this fair warning: She is referring more to classic Grimm than Disney.

Find It: Amazon

11. THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET // SANDRA CISNEROS

Acclaimed Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street came out in 1984. A coming of age story about a young Latina girl named Esperanza ("in Spanish my name means hope, in English it means too many letters") in Chicago, the book format follows Esperanza from her teenage years to adulthood. Cisneros weaves in stories about the robust Latin neighborhood around Esperanza, painting a vivid picture of life on Mango Street.

Find It: Amazon

12. WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY // LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH

The National Book Awards named Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah one of their 5 Under 35 in 2017. The very first story in this debut collection, "The Future Looks Good," is so brilliantly crafted around the family history of a girl who is fumbling to open a locked door, it's nearly impossible to catch your breath until the spectacular end. Each subsequent story has a distinctive voice. NPR called her writing "defiantly original" with a range that goes from "nightmare fairy tale" to "post-apocalyptic hope."

Find It: Amazon

13. ELEANOR & PARK // RAINBOW ROWELL

If it were possible to bottle up the feeling of first love and put it into word form, Eleanor & Park would be the result. It's set in the '80s—meaning mixtapes on cassettes and having to wait to see your crush because there are no cell phones. Rowell writes beautifully about the first flutters of love. Her other books vary in theme from a fanfic writing college student to gay magicians, but her ability to capture that first love feeling remains one of her most magical qualities across all her books.

Find It: Amazon

14. FAR FROM THE TREE // ROBIN BENWAY

Robin Benway's novel about a pregnant, adopted teen searching for her biological siblings could have easily veered into the after-school special territory. Instead, its realistic dialogue and beautiful prose make this book a smart, "big-hearted and uplifting" read, and made it last year's National Book Award winner for young people's literature.

Find It: Amazon

15. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING // JOAN DIDION

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING BY JOAN DIDION

The Year of Magical Thinking is the painfully honest chronicle of Joan Didion's life the year following the sudden death of her husband. Known for her novels, screenplays, and essay collections like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, this deeply personal book is a raw glimpse into the realities of grief. Didion adapted Magical Thinking into a play that debuted on Broadway in 2007.

Find It: Amazon

16. TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE // JENNY HAN

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

Jenny Han's first book in the series about teen Lara Jean Song Covey is so charming it's no wonder it's being adapted into a movie. Han writes incredibly authentic sister relationships: Lara Jean keeps the love letters she's written to the boys she's crushed on in a hat box, and when her younger sister mails them out, it sets off a series of perfect rom-com events.

Find It: Amazon

17. THE MOTHERS // BRIT BENNETT

THE MOTHERS BY BRIT BENNETT

Brit Bennett's 2016 debut novel, The Mothers, is about a young woman, Nadia, whose grief over her mother's recent suicide sends her down a path where she makes life-altering decisions that change the course of her future. Her ongoing relationships with her best friend, Aubrey, and the pastor's son, Luke, remind Nadia of what could have been had she made different choices.

Find It: Amazon

18. THE ROUND HOUSE // LOUISE ERDRICH

THE ROUND HOUSE BY LOUISE ERDRICH

Celebrated Native American writer Louise Erdrich has written 14 novels, including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves. In her 2012 novel The Round House—which was called "haunting" and "powerful" when it won the National Book Award for Fiction that year—the narrator shares the story of his struggle to make sense of and seek justice after the violent rape of his mother when he was 13 years old.

Find It: Amazon

19. TENDER AT THE BONE // RUTH REICHL

TENDER AT THE BONE BY RUTH REICHL

Former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl's 1998 memoir is infused with a lot of humor and truth telling. She writes openly about her mother's manic depression (and penchant for quirky culinary creations) and includes recipes throughout the book, which takes the reader through the various people who shaped her palate. Kirkus aptly described Tender as "A perfectly balanced stew of memories: not too sweet, not too tart."

Find It: Amazon

20. WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE // SAMANTHA IRBY

WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE BY SAMANTHA IRBY

Four years after her first book, Meaty, comedian Samantha Irby returned with a new collection in 2017. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is filled with 20 candid and moving essays which Bust called "so vulnerable and fearless that they'll stop you in your tracks." Chronicling decidedly unfunny moments, like spreading her father's ashes or dealing with a sick pet, Irby manages to inflect her curmudgeonly humor and warmth into every scenario, leaving you unsure if you should laugh or cry.

Find It: Amazon

21. IN THE COUNTRY // MIA ALVAR

IN THE COUNTRY BY MIA ALVAR

The nine stories in Mia Alvar's 2015 debut collection center around the life of Filipinos, those in the Philippines as well as those who moved to the U.S. or Bahrain for work, as she and her family had in her childhood. "Many of Mia's stories are so plausible," BuzzFeed reviewed, "it's easy to forget her book is a work of fiction." One story, about an expat woman who begins to tutor a severely impaired young girl, provides such insight into the morally gray area that so many people find themselves in that you'll find yourself thinking about it long after you've set the book aside.

Find It: Amazon

22. AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE // TAYARI JONES

AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE BY TAYARI JONES

Tayari Jones's fourth novel, An American Marriage, was quickly chosen by Oprah as her next book club selection after it was released earlier this year. The novel is told from the alternating points of view of a newlywed couple, Celestial and Roy, and the man who introduced them, Andre. When Roy is falsely convicted and sent to prison, it irreparably damages their marriage. Jones's masterful storytelling is gripping, and as Oprah describes it, "It's a love story that also has a huge layer of suspense."

Find It: Amazon

23. CRAZY SALAD // NORA EPHRON

CRAZY SALAD BY NORA EPHRON

This 1975 collection by legendary screenwriter Nora Ephron is hilarious and very much of the time. Prior to writing and/or directing classic movies like When Harry Met Sally …, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail, Ephron was a journalist and essayist. Crazy Salad includes the famous "A Few Words About Breasts," which is Ephron's humorous musing on how different her life would be if her breasts were larger. The essays, described by Entertainment Weekly as "coiled with crabby wit and snide intelligence," offer a glimpse into the women's movement in the '70s.

Find It: Amazon

24. THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR // NICOLA YOON

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR

This dreamy YA novel published in 2016, Nicola Yoon's follow-up to her debut, Everything, Everything, is about a matter-of-fact teenage girl who doesn't believe in fate or magic, but meets a winsome teen boy who shows her otherwise. With two POC protagonists tackling topics like deportation and the unique pressure of being the child of immigrants, this book manages to feel both current and timeless.

Find It: Amazon

25. MS. MARVEL // G. WILLOW WILSON

MS. MARVEL

When Marvel decided to make Ms. Marvel a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who lives in New Jersey—and had G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim woman, write the series—the world took notice. (The novel won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2015.) Part My So-Called Life, part classic Peter Parker origin story, Wilson makes Kamala Khan's adventures balancing school, family, and her superpowers feel like the universal teen experience.

Find It: Amazon

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER