Monday, July 27, 2009

CALL FOR ENTRIES: 50 Books for Problematic Times

Gertrude Stein

Earlier this week, I covered Newsweek’s myopic list of the 50 books that define and explain these confusing modern times. To recap: the list was 84% white, 78% male, 96% straight, and 66% both white and male, and that is not relevant to these modern times.

In response to this list, I presented 50 Books for Post-Modern Times, and began soliciting submissions from readers of Deeply Problematic and feminist writers I admire. I've already gotten a lot of great responses from folks - thank you so much!

I have re-named the project, and it is now called:

50 Books for Problematic Times

What is 50BPT? It's a list of 50 writers who shed light on society as it is today (its virtues and its flaws) without the benefit of bodies that fit into the canon. When lists of great writers usually reinforce that the important words and ideas are created by those with the most privilege, this list seeks to prioritize the voices of writers who speak most knowledgeably of the issues our society faces.

What writers can I nominate? Women writers, writers of color, LBGQ writers, and trans writers are the writers I have in mind here. I'm particularly interested in writers featuring intersectional challenges. I understand that oppression does not fit into neat little categories and is definitely not limited to the isms implied above. If you have a writer who faces or faced a significant oppression unmentioned here who challenges societal ideas of what a successful and noteworthy writer is, please send it in and we'll discuss.

What if I have a writer who's really relevant to feminist conversation, but doesn't fit into the guidelines above? I may do an extra-50PBT entry outside of the confines of this project. Write me about him anyway.

What books are eligible? Any kind of work - novel, poetry, history, short stories, anthology. Nominations for a body of work are fine, but please mention a specific work.

When will 50BPT begin and end? I will post the first writer on July 20th August 1st, and will post one a day until September 20.

Who should contribute? Everyone!

To contribute:
  1. Leave a comment here with your submission, including contact information and why you love them, or
  2. Email me at with your submission.
In your communication, tell me:
  1. How they inspire you
  2. What they contribute to our cultural narrative
  3. Why they are relevant today.
Please keep descriptions of each work/writer to 250 words if you can.

Everyone who contributes to this list will be quoted and linked, and I will inform you of your entry before it runs.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far. If you haven't...I look forward to hearing from you!


  1. Alice Notley's Descent of Alette. This is an epic poem that plays with and dissects the form while also reclaiming it for ends that are, among other things, feminist. She not only examines the problems of contemporary life but provides us a model of solving and challenging them that escapes the heroic-antiheroic binary. A more realistic version of this can be seen in her autobiographical poems in Mysteries of Small Houses.

    Elina Hirvonen's When I Forgot combines deeply personal stories of family, mental illness, and love with the broader background of war and anti-war movements. The characters may not be models for how to live you life, but they do go on just as we strive to do.

  2. I recommend works (poetry, fiction, and short stories) by Sherman Alexie, a Native American genius.

  3. Quiverfull - Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, by Kathryn Joyce, is a frightening look inside fundamentalist Christian communities and organizations; it describes in detail and with great frankness their attitudes towards women and their rights, abortion, homosexuality, and the ways in which their movement affects the mainstream today. Much of the book focuses on very recent events, and describes the fundamentalists' vision of the future. I am about half way through, and this book has already inspired me to be vigilant of protecting my rights as a woman, rights that these groups would like to strip away.

  4. Here's another one -- Diane Gilliam Fisher's poem Kettle Bottom.

  5. Angela Bonavoglia's Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church was the first book that popped into my head. Although I do not identify as papist, I graduated from a Catholic high school two years ago and my mother has worked for one on and a off for nearly a decade; the Church has loomed over my life for as long as I can remember. I always thought I understood how patriarchal the system is, but Good Catholic Girls made me realize that the discrimination in the world's most powerful church is so beyond overt.

  6. Wild by Jay Griffiths. She lives with indigenous communities all over the world and talks to them about their environments, histories, beliefs, troubles, and their concepts of "wild." It is an extraordinarily important feminist, historical, and anthropological work! Indigenous people have been abused, murdered, and wiped out by missionaries and colonialists alike, erased by white interference and theft. It's a sad book, but an important book, and enormously well-written.

    Great project idea!

  7. more politics and religion:

    Michelle Goldberg, The Means of Reproduction. History of international population and development policy, access to contraception and abortion, etc. This was published within the last 6 mo.

    Old, but great, novels with autobiographical content and viewpoints not generally heard:

    Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues. (transgender, - this is perhaps the most emotionally arresting of her works)

    Keri Hulme, The Bone People. (mixed-culture dominant and Maori, isolate/asexual woman and her relation with a traumatized Maori child and the child's foster parent)

    This sounds like a great project.

  8. Nancy, would you e-mail me a little bit more on these works (50-250 words) at

    Thanks for participating in the comments today. I really enjoyed debating with you in the other thread - you added a lot to the conversation. :)

  9. Too late to die young, by Harriet McBryde Johnson. (excerpt in link!)

    The whole post is my obit for Harriet, and I learned a lot of that from her memoir.

  10. I am looking forward to this list, Rachel. I am a newcomer to this blog, but now you are bookmarked in my favorites, thanks to this project.

    I recommend:
    Gloria Steinem's Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, which is an absolute feminist classic.

    Alison Bechdel's The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For is a hilarious masterpiece, one of my all-time favorite books, and my favorite comic.

    Assata is Assata Shakur's brilliant autobiography, chronicling her difficult childhood, her time with the Black Panther Party, her experiences in court, in prison, eventually in exile. This memoir is like a force to be reckoned with.

    Glass, Irony, and God and Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson both left me speechless. She is a Canadian poet, essayist, translator, and classics professor. G.I.G is a series of long poems divided into separate collections and Autobiography of Red is very lyric, lush prose.

    Alison Stine's first book of poetry Ohio Violence came out this past February and I highly recommend it, as well as her chapbook Lot of my Sister. Her work deals with gender and sexuality a good deal. She is amazing, and she is my former poetry instructor from a writer's workshop I attended twice. Love her.

    The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti should be required reading for all high school and college students, in my opinion. It is detailed, intelligent, down-to-earth, infuriating, and inspiring.

    And I have to add, The Vagina Monologues by the evocative Eve Ensler. It was my introduction to feminism in high school. I was subsequently in an ensemble production of the play at my university and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

    P.S. I'm looking for some quality queer women lit, any recommendations?

  11. Three suggestions, all YA fiction. Also,two of my Top Favorite Books of All Time™.

    First is Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick. It is a book by and about straight white males, but the two main characters - Max, the narrator, and Freak, his best friend - are disabled and working poor. Max has a learning disorder and Freak has an unnamed, crippling birth defect. Freak's also a genius. It's YA, but it's deeply moving.

    The second might be a little better for your list. What Happened to Lani Garver, by Carol Plum-Ucci. The narrator is a white teenage girl with an eating disorder and the other character might be a boy, and "he" might be gay, but "he" never really says and the people in "his" town have a problem with this. This is also a YA novel, mostly because that's what I read, and it's not the most groundbreaking work on feminism or transphobia or homophobia, but it is a good introduction.

    The third is Luna, about a transgender young woman and her coming out. Again, again, YA but a really eye opening book for a new feminist.

    Sorry those are both basically kid's books.

  12. Lipshitz 6 or two angry blondes by T. Cooper. The author is a transman. It inspires me because it a really good story about understanding the wierd quirks of your family. Cooper's book is fiction but the way the story is written he is incorporated into it. T. Cooper contributes to our cultural narrative by being jewish, transgendered, and a wonderful author. His story has parts in the "old country" Russia during a time when being jewish was a crime in itself, and follows the story of one family who loses one of their children. The Matron of the family begins to believe that her lost child is Charles Lindbergh and becomes obsessed with this idea. It begins with the first generation of the family and moves on to the most recnet generation where T. Cooper learns of his great-grandmothers obsession. It is relevant today because it deals with issues in today's world, including a part where the author/narrator finds himself in the hospital, being questioned about his i.d. card gender and his day-to-day gender, i.e. his i.d. card says female, but he presents male to the world, he even has a "wife." This book is one of many that i keep coming back to read.

    Another great novel, written by a white male from the perspective of an over weight female, is "She Comes Undone" by Wally Lamb. Lamb also has another great book out that deals with the issues of Mental health and a set of twins finding their own identities.

    hope that helps,

  13. Bharati Mukherjee. This woman is brilliant. She is an Indian-born American who originally immigrated to Canada. Her work not only focuses on the experience of being a woman, but being part of a formerly-colonized ethnicity living in the post-colonial colonizing countries, and the experience of being a woman in each of these cultures.

    One of my favorite collections of her work is The Middleman and Other Stories. "The Management of Grief" is particularly poignant, as it deals with living in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on the West pre-9/11, and living through it as both a victim (the narrator's husband and sons were on board the downed plane) and a native of the same country as the terrorists. It also deals with the conflicts of Indian and Canadian cultural mores, and... well, it's just fantastic.

    And I second Sherman Alexie-- his Ten Little Indians short story collection also has a great post-terrorist attack story, because that is somewhat on my mind. But "Chocolate Thunder" is my favorite in that collection.

  14. Joan Slonczewski, in particular A Door Into Ocean. She is a science fiction writer and a biologist. This book is not only a great example of a science fiction novel (excellent worldbuilding and fascinating biological details) but, more to the point here, it deals explicitly with gender roles and the idea that gender differences are biologically based, countering that idea with the ability of characters of both genders to change their behaviors (often in ways that are perceived as gendered).

    Furthermore, this is the best fictional exploration I have ever read of nonviolent practices. The women of Shora have built a peaceful culture and, when faced with the violence of a neighboring planet, continue to maintain their peaceful behaviors. Slonczewski illustrates several major techniques of nonviolent resistance and their possible consequences.

    I have taught this book in my intro-level American literature class. Some students are put off by it (whether by the SF elements, the pace of the opening, or the feminist and nonviolent messages), but many loved it, finding it eye-opening and liberating to envision a world in which gender is not necessarily the primary defining characteristic of a human being and in which violence is not the only answer.

  15. Strange as This Weather Has Been, by Ann Pancake. Can't recommend it enough. It's about how the environmental destruction caused by mountaintop removal mining affects the lives and livelihoods of the working class in Appalachia. It's fiction, but fiction that completely humanizes an issue which isn't much thought about or discussed in much of American culture.

  16. Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence edited by Marion Dane Bauer, YA
    A collection of gay and lesbian short stories from various authors. It was a great help to me in my coming out period.
    The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Do I really need to comment on this classic?
    I wish I could think of any books by disabled and/or mentally ill authors... There's Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, of course, but I've only seen the movie, so I can't comment on the book.

    (I can be reached on gmail, with my user name.)

  17. Lea, I am not sure what username you're referring to - could you shoot me an email at ?

  18. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Excellent history of the ideology that got us into our present economic / political situation.

  19. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, is one of the most complex and thought-provoking books I've ever read. While it may be science fiction, it deals with everything from culture clashes to structural inequality, and it's just a really good book.

  20. _Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller_, by Georgina Kleege. A woman who is blind examines the mythos surrounding Helen Keller and how it has affected people with disabilities through the use of letters she writes to Keller. Besides taking on the narrative built around Keller herself, the book attempts to explain and describe realities of life as a blind person that most of mainstream society just doesn't get.

  21. _Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment_ by Patricia Hill Collins comes to mind for me every time I talk to a white feminist who's just discovered this Great New Thing! called "intersectionality." Collins was talking about it nearly two decades ago, and the sources she cites and the struggles she describes make it clear that women of color have been navigating this space for a long, long time.

    I'd also like to recommend the anthology _Colonize This!_ It's full of honest voices of young women of color from all sorts of backgrounds. I read it when it first came out, seven years ago; I'd have to re-read it to speak with any more depth about why I think others should read it.

  22. Allan Johnson is a straight white guy, but his book, _Privilege, Power, and Difference_ is a great introduction to intersectional politics.
    I second _Black Feminist Thought_ and _Colonize This!_ as well.
    More than 2 decades after its first publication, I think Margaret Atwood's _The Handmaid's Tale_ continues to be almost chillingly timely.
    And, ok, it's historical fiction, so I don't know if it exactly falls into the category of "modern," but I can't help plugging _Tipping the Velvet_ by Sarah Waters. It is a lively, bawdy, poignant,and ultimately hopeful story about a young woman who falls for another woman (a male impersonator) in late-19th Century England. It touches on class issues, too.


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