Classic Books by Classy Dames

On Sunday morning as I was lolling in bed feeling half asleep and not at my best (the cliché “I can’t party like I used to” had revealed its poignant truth), an interview on CBC Radio with Rebecca Solnit clicked my brain to the “ON” position. In the interview, she said that empathy isn’t an emotion, it’s an act of the imagination. She explained that stories are what help us to become empathetic

because, through stories, we get to imagine what it would be like to live as another. When we do that, when we read about the trials and joys of someone who is totally unlike us, they become less of an “other” (an unknown entity, something not connected to us) and more of an ally. I apologize to the author if I’m misrepresenting her message, but in my bed at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday, Ms Solnit’s ideas on the importance of stories inspired me.

I can’t help but relate this to a recent incident that set off an internet sh*tstorm in Canada and around the world. A Canadian author, who happens to be an old white straight guy, said there were no women authors he really loved. Don’t worry, I’m not diving back into that particular can of wiggly worms. But he did get me thinking about how wonderful it is, on the one hand, to imagine the experiences of those unlike me (yes, I can get into those manly guy-guy books he so loves), but also how important it is for me to see myself reflected in stories told by other women. Maybe the empathy runs both ways? I develop empathy by learning about others, and I nourish myself with stories that make me feel others are empathetic toward me because we share common experiences.

Bjutie reads

My beloved copy of Pride & Prejudice and my own “shelf-esteem”

It has also got me thinking about some of the best works I’ve read by women, the types of books that are energizing and inspiring while simultaneously providing a cozy nest of escape. Most of what I read is pretty good and, if I don’t like a book, I have no hesitation about tossing it to the side unfinished. But there’s a magical thing that happens every so often when I sink into a truly beautiful book; it absorbs me wholly and, for a time, reading becomes a transformational, almost spiritual, event.

So I’ve put together a little list, a syllabus of sorts, of some mind-blowing novels by women. If that dude called his course Love, Sex, and Death in Short Fiction, I think I’ll call my reading list Fun, Passionate, Messy [Female] Lives in Long-form Fiction.

International (ok, mostly British) lasses:

Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I just finished this last week and I still feel like I’m living inside the book. I hadn’t come across writing this good in a long time! Americanah is the story of a Nigerian girl who leaves her first love behind to study in America. The author manages to include extremely sharp commentary about race, about the immigrant experience, and about academia while telling a compelling love story. When Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun got all that praise a few years back, I thought the subject matter sounded too serious to be likeable, but now I know she can write about serious life stuff in a way that is funny and uplifting. I will definitely check out her earlier work.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Amazing author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

All 6 Jane Austen novels, even Northanger Abbey (early 1800s): The bad news is: Jane Austen only got around to writing 6 books before she died. The good news is: they are so readable that you can revisit them and they are charming every time. In A Room of One’s Own, Virgina Woolf says that Jane Austen is the only female writer she knows that hasn’t let the bitterness of female circumstance poison her works (or something like that). And indeed, Austen tells sweet love stories about complex and interesting people. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that she’s really skewering the society of her time in which women’s fates are entirely dependent on their husbands. She cleverly lets the reader in on the joke while delivering smart, yet romantic, stories. Brilliant!

The Golden Notebook (1962) by Doris Lessing: This is a difficult one, folks. The first time I tried to read The Golden Notebook, I gave up and instead reread the next book on this list. The second time I tried to read The Golden Notebook, it changed my life. I was pretty lost at the time, 25 years-old (a fine time to be adrift), and I needed some brain nourishment. The fact that I picked up the book at all should have been the first clue that being a makeup artist wasn’t challenging my mind sufficiently. It was the first novel I read in which the character’s reflections mirrored my thoughts and anxieties. I had never before encountered the lives of women like this in fiction with relationships laid bare, and feminine powers and weaknesses all intertwined with complex emotion. I credit this book with illuminating my path back to school and into women’s studies. (I could have done without the long digressions about the Marxist party in Rhodesia, however.)

Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding: The year was 1998, I was 22 years old and leaving my boyfriend to go live on the opposite coast — I desperately needed a funny book to read on the plane! I’d read an excerpt from a new kind of British women’s literature in a magazine and I thought it would be perfect. I was right. No other book has made me laugh out loud as much as this has. There they are, our most ridiculously obsessive thoughts, plus the embarrassing indignities of singlehood, laid bare on the page. And it’s lovingly wrapped in a Pride & Prejudice homage! Sure, it’s a bit unfortunate that Bridget spawned an entire genre that is too often about shopping and fouffy convoluted story lines, but the original chick lit had nothing to do with pink high heels and engagement rings, and everything to do with trying to navigate life and love with grace and humour… and failing miserably most of the time. I’ll drink to that!

Photo Credit: Jason Bell.

Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones in the 2001 film (Photo: Jason Bell)

The World We Found (2012) by Thrity Umrigar: As with Americanah, I couldn’t stop talking about this book after I’d read it. It’s the story of 4 school friends in India who, in middle age, try to reunite despite their drastically different life paths. It’s one of those rare books about women’s lives that feels true. Each woman has her little internal dramas, each experiences major life upheavals, and all are shaped by societal conditions. How many great novels are centred around female friendship? Not that many. The World We Found is about the idealism of youth versus the realities of adult life, and it’s essentially about love.

The Believers (2009) by Zoë Heller: This story of a New York Jewish family turns into a tale about true love and being faithful to the essence of who you are. It reminded me a little of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which I also love (bonus: cool Z names!). Their tales are about ordinary messy families and the complicated journey toward self-discovery, mundane yet profound. Highly enjoyable in the hands of brilliant writers.

My Canadian gals:

The Robber Bride (1993) by Margaret Atwood: I don’t always love Atwood, but The Robber Bride is a deliciously naughty novel about a fierce femme fatale and the 3 friends who orbit around her. Here too is a story of female friendship and relationships, but with an evil twist. There’s some man-stealing involved, as well as sweet revenge — goodbye sisterly love! It’s sex and passion and death (take that Mr G*$?*#!). Also, I just got around to reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a couple of years ago. Woah! A must-read.

Evil femme fatales are so much fun (Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body)

The Underpainter (1997) by Jane Urquhart: “There is nothing in passion, really, except the sense that one should open one’s self to it.” If I ever get words tattooed on my body, it will be these. To read Jane Urquhart is to read poetry. I often have to stop and absorb what I just read because she’s so profound and beautiful. Get through the stark and challenging first 5 pages and you’ll be rewarded by a love story with layers of meaning. It’s because of Urquhart that I was able to understand the scars that WWII left on Canadian society. Learning history through novels is wonderfully immersive; it’s that empathy thing again that stories provide which learning straight facts can never produce. Her The Stone Carvers is also a beautiful novel.

Alligator (2005) by Lisa Moore: When I read Lisa Moore’s collection of short stories, Open, I thought: hoo boy, I cannot wait for her to write a novel (amazing given I’m not a fan of short stories). So, as soon as Alligator was published, I jumped on it! It is strangely not very Canadian-esque in feeling. It takes place partly in Florida, and there are Newfoundland Russian mobsters involved — it’s kooky. Also, Moore has a funny way of putting words together; it makes the reader feel the rhythm and energy of the tale and pulls us into its world.

Please, share some of your favourites! Also, how do you transition into your next book after reading something life changing? I always find it a challenge…


  1. Wow, for a male author to say that he does not have a favorite woman author—he really has either not read much or is close-minded! I need to agree with you, Brenda, about Thrity Umrigar’s “The World we Found”. The first book I read by her was “The Space Between Us” and I really loved that one as well. It is why I decided to read her most recent title. Umrigar can write so nicely, while making all her plots interesting. She has definitely proved herself to be a good female author to me. Isabel Allende is also a favorite of mine who I love to read. She always has good story lines written in poetic ways. I really loved her book “Island Beneath the Sea”. It kind of reminded me of Lawrence Hill’s “The Book of Negroes” and as much as I liked that book, Allende’s grabbed me more. Lisa See’s “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” really impressed me too and I have since read two other books by her which I also liked, even though they may not have been written quite as well or were as realistic. All we have to do is look at Alice Munro, who just won the Nobel prize for literature … that’s all I have to say. There is obviously great women authors out there, even very new ones who are just coming onto the scene after writing their first book. No shortage out there at all. They need to given more credit.

    • I do like Allende, though sometimes her work has too much of that multi-generational long-windedness (plus ghosts) for my taste. But I loved Zorro, so I’ll check out Island Beneath the Sea. I’ve never heard of Lisa See! Thanks for that suggestion.
      And, oh yeah, The Space Between Us was a devastating book. I think the next Umrigar I’ll read will be Bombay Time.
      Yay books!


  1. […] He likes her just as she is, aw. The first Bridget Jones adaption is fantastic and very true to the book (stay away from the second movie, however). And what a coup to have gotten Colin Firth, who was Mr. […]

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