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12 must-reads during Women's History Month

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Reading recommendations for Women's History Month -- and all year.
Reading recommendations for Women's History Month -- and all year.
Courtesy of publishers

To celebrate International Women's Day this week — and Women's History Month all month — we asked female authors from around Minnesota to give us their recommended reads. They shared the books that inspire them, the novels that never leave their bedside tables, and those they think speak most profoundly about the issues facing women.

Sally Franson recommends 'The Group' by Mary McCarthy

"The Group" by Mary McCarthy
"The Group" by Mary McCarthy
Courtesy of the publisher

"The Group" is a sprawling chronicle of a group of 1933 Vassar graduates, by Mary McCarthy, an acclaimed 20th century novelist, critic, public intellectual and doyenne. 

One of the novel's many claims to fame — besides staying on the best-seller list for two years after its 1963 publication  — is that Candace Bushnell considered "Sex and the City" its contemporary follow-up. Those familiar with the latter book and series will recognize familiar themes in "The Group" — sex and sexuality, marriage, adultery, work, child-rearing, and the complicated bonds of female friendship.

What's so great about the novel, especially now, is how utterly timely and timeless it feels. The issues that women are coming up against now are the same issues they've always come up against. "The Group" is both a fascinating (and often very funny) piece of social history as well as a triumph of the female literary tradition. 

Norman Mailer, after it was published, famously said that women were incapable of writing a "major novel." But the last laugh's on him, for McCarthy's never felt so current, and who reads Mailer now? 

  Sally Franson's novel 'A Lady's Guide to Selling Out' will be available April 10. 

V.V. Ganeshananthan recommends 'Marriage of a Thousand Lies' by SJ Sindu

Lucky and her husband, Krishna, have an arranged marriage: They're together so that she can pursue women and he can pursue men. She wants to present her Sri Lankan Tamil American family with a facade of conventional straightness. 

Her carefully constructed life goes off the rails, though, when she reconnects with a childhood friend and love on the verge of her own arranged marriage. Sindu handles the complexities of identity beautifully.

V.V. Ganeshananthan is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and the author of "Love Marriage."

Linda LeGarde Grover recommends 'Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest' by Heid E. Erdrich

"Original Local" by Heid E. Erdrich
"Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes from the Upper Midwest" by Heid E. Erdrich.
Courtesy of MNHS Press

The book is indigenous feminism at its finest: Native womanhood, in all its power and mystery, is at the heart of sustenance and nurturing through the stories and preparation of foods. 

Erdrich's poetic cookbook is an enjoyable read for kitchen and bedside: the story recipes are inclusive, insightful and grounded in the history and worldview of Native people.

Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Her latest collection of essays, "Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year," is a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award.

Freya Manfred recommends 'No Time to Spare' by Ursula K. Le Guin and 'My Name is Lucy Barton' by Elizabeth Strout

"No Time to Spare" by Ursula K. Le Guin
"No Time to Spare" by Ursula K. Le Guin
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

  In "No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters," the fantasy and science fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, has written a series of brilliant and beautiful essays, which began as blogs.   

Writing about what matters to her now and about her concerns for this world, she is at once a witty social critic and a profound storyteller.  Whether she writes about living past 80, the Lit Biz, the natural world, science, religion, her cat, or eating a soft-boiled egg, she's always lively and never boring. Le Guin died in January in Portland, Ore.   I also love Elizabeth Strout's novel, "My Name Is Lucy Barton." It's a deeply nuanced story about a troubled yet somehow loving mother-daughter relationship. 

Lucy, the daughter in the novel, is a writer herself, so at times I felt a sense of immediacy and reality that I rarely find in novels about the art of writing and the delicate journey of "becoming" a writer. 

Lucy's honesty, complexity and gritty ability to survive despite great childhood trauma is utterly compelling, and I could not put this novel down, not even to jot down some of its insights. I had to go back later and reread sections of the novel so I could jot down what I learned about acceptance, or forgiveness, and how it can be combined with an unstinting revelation of sad, difficult truths. 

Freya Manfred's latest book of poetry is "Speak, Mother," and her latest memoir is "Raising Twins: A True Life Adventure."

Alison McGhee recommends 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith
Courtesy of HarperCollins

By the time I reached my 40s I was afraid to reread "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," a memoir-novel by Betty Smith about a young girl growing up on the mean streets of Depression-era Brooklyn, published in 1943. How could it possibly stand up to my memory of it as the transformational book of my childhood, the book that — more than any other — was embedded in my heart? 

But I pulled it off the shelf one day and read it again. And cried. And held it to my heart, because it was even more moving than I remembered. Francie Nolan was a lonely girl, even though she was loved, and so was I. She was unable not to feel the sadness of those around you, and so was I. Her love for the world and being alive in it was wild and intense, and so was and is mine. She was filled with longing and confusion, and so was I. 

The novel shows, in a particular but universal way, how life was (and is) different if you're born female. The cards were stacked against Francie from birth in specific ways: education, jobs, sexual and emotional and religious abuse. At the same time, the novel also shows, without sentiment, how the fierce resilience of a girl determined to make her way out of the conditions she was born into results in powerful change. 

Francie's favorite teacher told her that in life, she should tell the truth of the way things happened, but that in the stories she wrote, she could make up her own endings. She could write life the way it should be. Francie took that advice to heart, and so did I. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" showed me that writing was a way to translate and transcend the wrenching experience of living, especially as a female, and I needed that. We all do. 

Alison McGhee's latest children's novel is "Pablo and Birdy"; her most recent novel for adults is "Never Coming Back." 

Julie Schumacher recommends 'James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon' by Julie Phillips

"James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" by Julie Phillips
"James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" by Julie Phillips
Courtesy of Macmillan

This is a work of nonfiction by Julie Phillips, who spent 10 years researching the life and work (mostly science fiction writing) of James Tiptree Jr., who did not exist. Tiptree was an alias, a second self created by Alice B. Sheldon, who broke into the relatively closed ranks of science fiction writers by claiming to be a man. Sheldon was a debutante, an explorer, a CIA agent, a research scientist — and a lesbian ill at ease in both her female identity and her physical body.  

This is a beautiful, sad, surprising and insightful book.

Julie Schumacher, a professor at the University of Minnesota, became the first woman to take home the Thurber Prize for American Humor when she won in 2015 for "Dear Committee Members." Last year, she released "Doodling for Academics."

Sun Yung Shin recommends 'Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema' by Jan Chi Hyun Park

"Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema" will help anyone who is interested in movies understand the racist whitewashing of Asian characters and the Orientalist cultural appropriation rampant in Hollywood yesterday and today. 

Some of my favorite films such as "Blade Runner" are examined in depth! Her work inspires my own poetry.   

Sun Yung Shin is the author of "Unbearable Splendor," and editor of the anthology, "A Good Time for the Truth."

Sarah Stonich recommends The Cazalet Chronicles series by Elizabeth Jane Howard

"The Light Years" by Elizabeth Jane Howard
"The Light Years" by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Courtesy of Pan Macmillan

The Cazalet Chronicles — "The Light Years"; "Marking Time"; "Confusion"; "Casting Off" and "All Change" — weaves the lives of a British middle class family together and apart before, during and after World War II. The novels are historic accounts by a woman who lived that history of war, love, motherhood, rebellion — a chronicle of a life's experience. 

Howard was a writer of great skill in her portrayals, reminding us why women novelists are so great — characters drive their stories forward, whereas male writers tend to put story first, characters secondary.  

During the period Howard was married to her third husband Kingsley Amis, her career took a back seat, despite her being the more gifted writer. She kept house, entertained, was a caring, involved stepmother to Amis' children, and tended a parade of his long-staying guests. Her writing was wedged around and between the domestic obligations of a woman of the times. I imagine she would have been more prolific, given the same support and credence as a male counterpart.     

Sarah Stonich's "These Granite Islands," was shortlisted for France's Gran Prix de Lectrices de Elle. "Laurentian," the second volume in her True North trilogy, will be released this September.

Ashley Shelby recommends 'But You're Wearing a Shirt the Color of the Sky' by Lucille Broderson

"But You're Wearing a Blue Shirt the Color of the Sky"
"But You're Wearing a Blue Shirt the Color of the Sky" by Lucille Broderson
Courtesy of Nodin Press

There's a veil drawn over the strange landscape of aging which renders its female inhabitants, in particular, nearly invisible. Similarly, the publishing world tends to ignore the voices of aging women writers, particularly if they picked up the habit late in life. This is one reason why I consider my copy of Minnesota poet Lucille Broderson's "But You're Wearing a Shirt the Color of the Sky" an almost sacred text. It is the only book that never leaves by bedside table. 

Broderson, who died in 2015 "of complications of being 98," published this collection of poems at age 94, though she'd been writing for three decades by then, having started writing in earnest in her 60s. 

Her coruscating dispatches from the mysterious ecosystem of loss, endurance, memory and love crackle with wit and devastate me with their beauty. Broderson wrote of hospital rooms and graveyards, of beloved dogs disappearing beneath the hen house to die. But she also wrote of late afternoons on Lake Superior, of robins nibbling dandelions, and the sound of her grandchildren tiptoeing past her bedroom. 

In a world where aging women — most particularly the elderly woman — has been silenced, Lucille Broderson shatters the air with her voice. 

Ashley Shelby's debut novel, "South Pole Station," was published in July.

Kim Todd recommends 'The Discovery of Jeanne Baret' by Glynis Ridley

"The Discovery of Jeanne Baret" by Glynis Ridley
"The Discovery of Jeanne Baret" by Glynis Ridley.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In 1766, 26-year-old Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a man and boarded the Etoile, headed around the world. As assistant (and lover) to the ship's naturalist Philibert Commerson, she used skills developed as an herb woman in France to collect and record plants from across the globe, some new to Western science. 

Prompted by an intrepid spirit, she visited countries few Europeans ever had; as she told the captain, when her disguise was revealed, "such a voyage had raised her curiosity." 

It's rare to have documentation of an exceptional woman who wasn't educated or wealthy, but Ridley unearths Baret's fascinating narrative in a book that's half-sea adventure, half-literary detective story, literally reading between the lines of archival sources where officials tried to obscure the truth.

Kim Todd is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Her most recent book is "Sparrow."

Kao Kalia Yang recommends 'Afterland' by Mai Der Vang

"Afterland" by Mai Der Vang
"Afterland" by Mai Der Vang
Courtesy of Graywolf Press

This is an astounding first collection of poetry by a Hmong-American woman. As another Hmong-American woman writer, it is exciting to see the experience we share translated into the color, the texture, the fabric of poetry. 

Like "ib daim paj ntaub," a storycloth, Vang's work reveals new elements of story in each reading, thus they grow along with their reader in strength and clarity, humility and purpose; her poems are heartbreaking and heart-making at once. 

Every reader will benefit from the richness of Vang's exquisite language and construction of poetic landscape."

Kao Kalia Yang's book, "The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father," won a 2017 Minnesota Book Award and was a 2017 National Book Award finalist. "The Latehomecomer" was a Minnesota Book Award winner in 2009.