women's writing and summer reading

(WOMENSENEWS)–Female writers have produced plenty of good reading in time for summer; including a good dose of sensational splash.

Perhaps the most talked about is Elizabeth Edwards’ "Resilience," an account of her struggle with cancer and the infamous infidelity of her husband John, the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate. While the book’s publicity tour led to strident public criticism of the author from some quarters–including New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Tina Brown, publisher of the Daily Beast–plenty of the reviews have been glowing.

Novelist Ayelet Waldman also stirs things up with her memoir, "Bad Mother," in which she responds to, among other things, the negative publicity she’s encountered when writing honestly about her experiences as a mother and wife. Her husband is Michael Chabon, a Pulitzer-winning novelist.

In another attention-getting memoir, spoken-word artist Stacyann Chin describes the beauty and strife of her childhood in Jamaica, her search for her father, and her experiences as a lesbian of color in "The Other Side of Paradise."

Two new literary biographies have also been making waves by putting the spotlight on female authors with cult followings.

Brad Gooch’s "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor" and Lilian Pizzichini’s "The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys" are bringing renewed attention to their subjects’ lives and work. O’Connor was the southern mistress of the gothic short story; Rhys’ postcolonial retort to Jane Eyre, "Wide Sargasso Sea," is considered a masterpiece.

Family Sagas Return

New family sagas by female fiction writers are once again hitting the market in time for summer.

Lisa See’s new novel "Shanghai Girls" follows two sisters from their carefree childhood in pre-WWII Shanghai through wartime emigration to their new life in California as brides of arranged marriages. There, they struggle to reconcile themselves to the ups and downs of their new American life.

Kate Walbert’s "A Short History of Women" is a novel weaving in and out of the generations of one family in Britain and America: from a woman who died fasting for suffrage in England to the modern angst of her great grand-nieces in the urban and suburban American elite.

Alice Hoffman’s "The Story Sisters" chronicles the lives of three sisters who grew up with their mother in Long Island. They are jolted out of a the secret imaginary world of their childhood–including their own language–by an act of sexual abuse that has repercussions for their adult lives.

A few bestselling authors are back this year as well, and their new books will doubtless fill many a canvas tote this summer.

Warm-hearted Irish novelist Maeve Binchy’s "Heart and Soul," published in February, goes back to the author’s beloved Dublin to explore the life and loves of a doctor at a heart clinic, bringing back a cast of Irish characters readers may recognize from Binchy’s previous works.

American writer Jennifer Weiner, author of women’s-lit standards "Good in Bed" and "In Her Shoes" and an advocate for gender equality in media coverage of the book world, comes back with "Best Friends Forever," a story of two long-estranged childhood friends reunited in dire circumstances.

Romance writer Beverly Jenkins’s "Bring on the Blessings" tells the story of a woman who uses her divorce settlement to purchase Henry Adams, Kan., one of the last towns founded by freed American slaves, and a town that’s in such dire straits it has put itself up for sale on the Internet.

On the breezier side, Page Six gossip columnist Paula Froelich of the New York Post is turning heads by holding a contest for guessing the real-life inspirations for the subjects of her novel "Mercury in Retrograde" which follows three female neighbors, and the eccentrics and society denizens they encounter in New York City.

Weightier Topics

A number of nonfiction books cover weightier topics.

In her book "Bodies," psychologist Susie Orbach explores how body-related anxiety has become as prevalent as mental anxiety, leading to eating disorders, obesity and anxiety.

Taking a lighter approach to a similar topic, Kate Harding’s and Marianne Kirby’s "Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere" comes out of the online fat acceptance movement.

Just in time for the downturn, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay’s "Womenomics" urges women to be the vanguard of a more reasonable (and profitable, they say) work-life balance. They offer personal anecdotes, negotiating strategies for women, and examples of companies that have good policies in place.

Shira Tarrant’s "Men and Feminism" helps define the role men can play in a movement liberating women while Jessica Valenti’s "The Purity Myth" and Michelle Goldberg’s "The Means of Reproduction" look at how reproductive rights and control of women’s bodies has become a political battleground at home and abroad, respectively.

"Front Lines," an anthology of plays edited by Alexis Greene and Shirley Lauro, offers a series of dramas by women that mix truth and fiction to comment on political subjects from false imprisonment to the Iraq War to domestic violence.

Women’s writing has also been highly prized so far in 2009.

Elizabeth Strout’s "Olive Kitteridge" took home the big American prize, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this spring. The book is a series of interconnected stories, both funny and sad, and all involving the titular character, and the people who live, work and visit her Maine town.

The Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Ruined" by Lynn Nottage, is a an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s "Mother Courage and Her Children" set in wartime Congo. In the words of the committee, Nottage’s work "compels audiences to face the horror of wartime rape and brutality while still finding affirmation of life and hope amid hopelessness."

Other women took home big prizes this year, too.

Marilynne Robinson netted the Orange Prize for Fiction which goes to the year’s best female novelist in English. It was awarded to Robinson for her 2008 novel "Home," a return to the characters in her 2004 novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gilead."

Canadian Alice Munro, beloved for her short stories, won the third Man Booker International Prize, one of the biggest prizes short of the Nobel. American novelist Jane Smiley was one of the committee members. A quintessential Munro story collection is "The View from Castle Rock." Another collection of her short fiction is due out in November.

The Lambda literary awards gave out a tied prize to two books that constituted the best lesbian fiction of the year. The winners were "The Sealed Letter" by Emma Donoghue, a story of adultery, betrayal and gender politics in Victorian England (based on an actual divorce trial), and "All the Pretty Girls," by Chandra Mayor, a series of first-person narrated short stories.

Sarah M. Seltzer is a Women’s eNews contributor and a freelance writer in New York. You can read more of her work at www.sarahmseltzer.com.