(WOMENSENEWS)–Although 2008 wasn’t marked by the same high-profile triumphs for female authors as 2007–no Nobel Prize, no Harry Potter finale–it was still a banner year for women with pens, or perhaps word processors.
Many of the most lauded and bestselling female authors of our era published in 2008, vaulting an impressively large number of works onto year-end "best of" lists and the front displays of bookstores. In a struggling climate for publishing, these powerhouse female authors helped keep the industry afloat.
Leading the pack in the world of fiction this year were Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Pulitzer alumnae Jhumpa Lahiri, Marilynne Robinson and E. Annie Proulx, as well as bestseller Curtis Sittenfeld.
Morrison’s latest historical novel, "A Mercy," is a tale about the birth of the American psyche in a world where the Native Americans are being slaughtered, slavery is growing more popular and wives are sent over from England to pay off their family debts. The complicated, far-reaching act of mercy that bookends the story is a mother in slavery who willingly parts with her daughter so that the girl can be owned by a more humane master.
Writers Lahiri, Robinson and Proulx returned to territory with which they have become synonymous. Lahiri’s "Unaccustomed Earth" is a series of thematically linked stories exploring immigrant families, particularly the gulfs between Bengalis in America, their first-generation children and their homeland.
Proulx’s "Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3," goes back to the plains and mountains of the state where her "Brokeback Mountain" took place. Robinson’s "Home" is even more explicitly familiar, reuniting the family from her Pulitzer-winning "Gilead" as they gather at their ailing father’s deathbed.
"Prep" author Curtis Sittenfeld envisions a world of gossip and intrigue not unlike–but on a much grander scale–the tony prep school in her debut. "American Wife" tells the life story of a Midwestern librarian who unexpectedly marries into a WASPy dynasty and watches her husband battle alcoholism, find Jesus and climb the political ranks, a story closely modeled on that of Laura Bush.
Buzz and Acclaimed Debuts
Beyond the big names, women authored many of the year’s acclaimed debut novels. Kate Morton’s "The House at Riverton" is the remembered tale of a British family told by its loyal servant at the end of her life. Debut novelist and blogger Carleen Brice’s "Orange, Mint and Honey" is about a young grad student’s attempt at reconciliation with her formerly alcoholic mother.
Here are 10 books from 2008 written or recommended by WeNews editors, writers and friends:
"The Jewel of Medina" by Sherry Jones, a controversial fictional portrayal of Muhammed’s first wife that was canceled by Random House before being published by Beaufort Books
"The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive" by Marvelyn Brown and Courtney E. Martin
"Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Leading Roles" is a New York Times best-seller written by Gloria Feldt and Kathleen Turner
"Midnight" by Sister Souljah, the follow-up to her wildly popular street saga "The Coldest Winter Ever"
"Women of the Court: Inside the WNBA" by Juliette Terzieff
"Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It" by Sen. Mike Gravel and Joe Lauria
"The Lake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy," Nancy Nichols
"Feminism and Pop Culture" by Andi Zeisler
"Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and Murder-Suicides" by Katherine van Wormer and A.R. Roberts
"Hellions: Pop-Culture’s Rebel Women" by Maria Raha
One of the year’s most buzzed about and lauded nonfiction books was New Yorker contributor Jane Mayer’s "The Dark Side," an investigative look at the internal arguments about torture, Guantanamo Bay and the CIA in the Bush administration. "The Dark Side" has been widely cited by journalists and commentators since its publication as the authoritative, comprehensive book on the subject.
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.