Pen-Wielding Women Have Powerhouse Year

Friday, December 19, 2008

With new books from Morrison, Lahiri and Gilpin Faust, female writers had a strong showing in '08. Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side" offers an authoritative investigation of the internal arguments about torture, Guantanamo Bay and the Bush-era CIA.

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Debut writer Susan Madden Lankford's "Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time" is a detailed account of the lives of women in California jails using photography, first-person interviews and research to damningly illuminate the deeply troubled U.S. criminal rehabilitation and penal system. It was named a best book of the year by Publishers Weekly.

Novelist Julia Alvarez took a journalistic look at a growing cultural phenomenon in "Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA," using "Quince"--or 15th birthday--parties to explore issues of assimilation, the immigrant experience and Latina womanhood.

Memoirs and History Go Strong

Women-penned memoirs continued to be popular this year. Honor Moore's "The Bishop's Daughter: A Memoir" is the story of a woman who realized her father, a prominent Episcopal bishop widely admired for his anti-poverty ministry, had a concealed second life as a gay man. "Kinky Gazpacho" by Lori Tharps is a memoir of growing up, adolescence and adulthood as a comfortably privileged African American navigating her identity.

Although New York Times Book Review staffer Barry Gewen notoriously said at a Harvard talk in early 2007 that women didn't get covered in his section because they didn't write serious books about military history, two of the year's most talked-about books were female-authored investigations into just that.

Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, who already made history by being named the first female president of the university in 2007, wrote "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" about the effect of an unprecedented number of deaths on postwar life and reconciliation. The book was one of the year's best received and is short-listed for the National Book Award.

Popular presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" about Lincoln's cabinet of former opponents got lots of attention (and sales) by seemingly providing the model for President-elect Barack Obama's modus operandi.

Paula J. Giddings' biography "Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching" provided a rich historical and biographical treatment of a U.S. pioneer of anti-racist and feminist activism.

Examining Women Behind Famous Men

Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" uses the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings sexual relationship as a lens to explore issues of freedom in the slaveholding society of colonial Virginia.

Feminist scholar Germaine Greer published "Shakespeare's Wife," a controversial reconstruction of what daily life must have been like for Ann Hathaway, a rumination on gender in Shakespeare's world and an examination of the bard's work to find clues about his marriage.

In the YA world, Mormon housewife-turned-multimillionaire author Stephenie Meyer was in the spotlight for much of the year with the publication of an adult sci-fi novel, "The Host," the long-anticipated release of "Breaking Dawn," the fourth novel in her "Twilight" series, and the premiere of the first "Twilight" film.

Not all the attention was positive: many fans reacted harshly to "Breaking Dawn" and Meyer's characters were criticized widely as poor role models for young women. But the collective purchasing power of Meyer's largely female audience was on display all year long and spawned a new genre: paranormal romance.

At the very end of the year, Meyer's phenomenal sales were swept away by the woman to whom she is most often compared. "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling published a collection of fairy tales from the wizarding world, "The Tales of Beedle the Bard," in December, and it shot to the top of the bestseller lists, further proof that whenever Rowling publishes again, she has the world's largest literary fan base waiting to read her work.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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