Good Earth by Pearl S Buck – a graphic view of a China when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings for the ordinary people. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that have occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during this century.
Tess of the D’ubervilles by Thomas Hardy – Set in the bleak, magical Wessex landscape so familiar from Hardy’s early work, Tess’s cruel story reveals circumstances slowly closing in on her as she attempts to grasp a few moments of happiness with her lover. You can tell he himself loves the character of Tess and it is this that makes it such a good book. The character has so many layers that every time you read it Tess is a new person, she grows with you.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy – Ask any woman born pre-1970 to name the books which she found life altering and you can bet that Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy appears among them. Woman on the Edge of Time is the moving story of Connie Ramos, a thirty-seven-year-old Mexican-American, unfairly incarcerated in a mental hospital, whose survival instinct is greatly tested. On a larger scale it is a Utopian epic that makes you question the system that institutionalizes her. Although originally published in 1975, this Women’s Press classic has endured the test of time and is greatly relevant to the 21st century reader interested in the idea of the position of women in the world.
The Poet and the Donkey by May Sarton – a poet who had lost his muse and then finds her once again in the form of a donkey. Not only does he find his muse but he learns things about himself along the way. This is a short, sweet read that is funny and thought provoking as it glides along.
The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton – The title character is Jane Reid, a remarkable American aristocrat. Born to moneyed privilege, the daughter and granddaughter of distinguished New Englanders, and talented and attractive in her own right, she devotes her long life to service and giving. As teacher, philanthropist, and friend, she influences and touches many. She chooses to remain single, but her zest for people assures that she is never alone.
Faithful are the Wounds by May Sarton – Set in the academic world of Harvard and Cambridge, this novel dramatizes the plight of the embattled American liberal in the 1950s. Its central character is Edward Cavan, a brilliant English professor, who commits suicide. His death sets off a shock wave among Cavan’s friends–and changes things for some of them forever.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier – Set among the sweeping skirts and social upheavals of Edwardian London – her central characters are two young girls of the same age, whose family plots are situated side-by-side in a cemetery modeled on Highgate. Lavinia Waterhouse is respectably middle-class, devoted, like her conventional, doting mother, to the right way to do things, although suspiciously well- schooled in subjects like funerary sculpture and the English practices of mourning. Her friend Maude Coleman comes from a slightly more privileged and free-thinking background. In contrast with Lavinia’s mother, Maude’s mother Kitty Coleman is well-educated by the standards of the day, and it has made her restless until she discovers the woman’s suffrage movement.
The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier – Nicolas des Innocents has been commissioned by the Parisian nobleman Jean Le Viste to design a series of large tapestries for his great hall (in real life, the famous Lady and the Unicorn cycle, now in Paris’s Musee National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny). While Nicolas is measuring the walls, he meets a beautiful girl who turns out to be Jean Le Viste’s daughter. Their passion is impossible for their world–so forbidden, given their class differences, that its only avenue of expression turns out to be those magnificent tapestries.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – Readers experience the entire life of a geisha, from her origins as an orphaned fishing-village girl in 1929 to her triumphant auction of her mizuage (virginity) for a record price as a teenager to her reminiscent old age as the distinguished mistress of the powerful patron of her dreams. We discover that a geisha is more analogous to a Western “trophy wife” than to a prostitute–and, as in Austen, flat-out prostitution and early death is a woman’s alternative to the repressive, arcane system of courtship.
Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Beer and Susan Dworkin – Born to a middle-class, nonobservant Jewish family, Beer was a popular teenager and successful law student when the Nazis moved into Austria. In a well-written narrative that reads like a novel, she relates the escalating fear and humiliating indignities she and others endured. Using all their resources, her family bribed officials for exit visas for her two sisters, but Edith and her mother remained, due to lack of money and Edith’s desire to be near her half-Jewish boyfriend, Pepi.
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, America, still recovering from the Great Depression, came face to face with itself in a startling, lyrical way. John Steinbeck gathered the country’s recent shames and devastations–the Hoovervilles, the desperate, dirty children, the dissolution of kin, the oppressive labor conditions–in the Joad family. Then he set them down on a westward-running road, local dialect and all, for the world to acknowledge. For this marvel of observation and perception, he won the Pulitzer in 1940.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – The Mad Hatter, the Ugly Duchess, the Mock Turtle, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat-characters each more eccentric than the last, and that could only have come from Lewis Carroll, the master of sublime nonsense. In these two brilliant burlesques he created two of the most famous and fantastic novels of all time that not only stirred our imagination but revolutionized literature.
Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg – Published between 1951 and 1961, Moberg’s four-volume “Emigrant” epic offers the saga of the Swedish immigrant’s role in the settling of the American frontier. Book One introduces Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, their 3 young children, and 11 others who make up a resolute party of Swedes fleeing the poverty, religious persecution, and social oppression of Smland in 1850.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – In 1843, a 16-year-old Canadian housemaid named Grace Marks was tried for the murder of her employer and his mistress. The sensationalistic trial made headlines throughout the world, and the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Yet opinion remained fiercely divided about Marks–was she a spurned woman who had taken out her rage on two innocent victims, or was she an unwilling victim herself, caught up in a crime she was too young to understand?
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood – Elaine Risley is a middle-aged Canadian painter who is thrust into a reconsideration of her past while attending a retrospective show of her work in Toronto, a city she had fled years earlier in order to leave behind painful memories. Most pointedly, Risley reflects on the strangeness of her long relations with Cordelia, a childhood friend whose cruelties, dealt lavishly to Risley, helped hone her awareness of our inveterate appetite for destruction even while we love, and are understood as characteristically feminine betrayal of other women that masks a ferocious betrayal of oneself.
That Old Ace in the Hole by E Annie Proulx –Takes place in the Texas Panhandle, a place of constantly alarming weather, frequently alarming characters, and a strange beauty. Young Bob Dollar has the first job is his career, scouting land for a Global Pork Rind hog operation. He is advised to look for god-forsaken places where elderly residents are longing to sell up and move out and whose offspring would not return to the area even if someone held a gun to their heads. But because of possible inexplicable opposition to placing a hog operation in the community, Bob must scout surreptitiously. Wind-blasted, lightening-stricken Woolybucket, Texas, would seem to be the perfect find, but one where Bob’s cover story of scouting property for a development of luxury homes has the locals scratching their heads.
What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg – As this new work opens, Ginny is flying to California to join her sister in a meeting with their mother, whom neither daughter has seen for 35 years. Ginny uses her travel time to reflect upon her memories of the summer when her mother withdrew from the family and became an outsider in her daughters’ lives. Berg’s precise, evocative descriptions create vivid images of Ginny’s physical world, while Berg’s understanding and perception are an eloquent testimony to Ginny’s emotional turmoil. Berg cleverly examines the roles and relationships of mothers and daughters and reveals how truth, forgiveness, and understanding are possible in healing intergenerational rifts between women.
Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin – An unusual telling of boy-meets-girl, Zevin’s debut reiterates female complexity through a husband and daughter’s experiences with one surprising woman. N., the earnest narrator, describes meeting captivating, mercurial Maggie Towne when he’s a grad student. They travel to her childhood home, Margarettown, where he finds no inhabitants save women named Margaret: there’s giggling girl May, sullen teenager Mia, bitter middle-aged Marge, wise elderly Old Margaret and suicidal artist Greta, conspicuous by her absence. It’s not giving much away to reveal that these women are all Maggie herself (“you won’t find a woman in the world that doesn’t have a couple other women inside her,” she says), though whether Margarettown is a real place or N.’s invention is left in doubt. While the book’s first half concerns N.’s struggles to love and understand the various manifestations of Margaret, the end belongs to their daughter, Jane, who reads her father’s version of her parents’ courtship after they both have died.
Voices of the Loon is a composite of stories written by MN authors – Sharon will give us more information!
And then there is:
Margaret Lawrence – who wrote Hearts and Bones, Burning Bride, Blood Red Roses and Ice Weaver
Margaret Laurence – who wrote Stone Angel, Diviners and Jest of God
(which Margaret L? – all the Lawrence are out of print but available from Amazon.com – and sound fascinating! I am thinking Laurence, as she is a Canadian writer and I think her name came up when we were discussing Atwood)