In the summer I like to read the Duke Common Experience Summer Reading selection. I am really excited to check out Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco this year. I noticed something interesting though when I looked at the list of the finalists this year. Lots of great titles, but all the authors are men. So I thought I’d suggest some books written by women for your summer reading, just to balance your reading list!
Homegoing: A Novel by Yaa Gyasi traces traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. You can read reviews here and here.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography and a finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Geobiologist Hope Jahren has spent her life studying trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Lab Girl is her revelatory treatise on plant life–but it is also a celebration of the lifelong curiosity, humility, and passion that drive every scientist. In these pages, Hope takes us back to her Minnesota childhood, where she spent hours in unfettered play in her father’s college laboratory. She tells us how she found a sanctuary in science, learning to perform lab work “with both the heart and the hands.” She introduces us to Bill, her brilliant, eccentric lab manager. And she extends the mantle of scientist to each one of her readers, inviting us to join her in observing and protecting our environment.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien has been on both the Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlists. In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman called Ai-Ming, who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China – from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay is a collection of stories of rare force and beauty, of hardscrabble lives, passionate loves, and quirky and vexed human connection. The women in these stories live lives of privilege and of poverty, are in marriages both loving and haunted by past crimes or emotional blackmail. From a girls’ fight club to a wealthy subdivision in Florida where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other, Gay delivers a wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America reminiscent of Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July. If you have never read anything by Roxane Gay, her website has a great list of the short stories, essays, and interviews that have appeared in a variety of online and print publications. You might also want to check out this NPR interview.
Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age was written by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the founder of muslimgirl.com. It was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, where the book was described as a “blunt observation, reflective of the potent message she delivers to her readers, a skillful unraveling of the myth of the submissive Muslim woman and a timely introduction to those other, very American and largely unheard 9/11 kids who bear the destructive burden of that one day, every day.” It is a harrowing and candid memoir about coming of age as a Muslim American in the wake of 9/11, during the never-ending war on terror, and through the Trump era. You can read an excerpt here.