ARTS & CULTURE
02/04/2016 11:05 am ET

21 Provocative Books By Women Every Bookshelf Needs

No pressure, Emma Watson.

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When actress Emma Watson announced recently that she was launching a feminist book club called Our Shared Shelf, many were skeptical. Any new book club, like a new restaurant, has a high chance of failure, and Watson hardly seemed the expert. 

Now that the club has moved into its second book, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, there's cause for optimism. Watson seems to be prioritizing diversity and intersectionality in her selections, while leaning toward fairly mainstream classics of the feminist canon (so far, at least).

As Slate's Katy Waldman notes, the book club's online discussion threads are energetic and thoughtful, if mostly rather rooted in the question of feminism itself. "A real 'feminist book club,' one profoundly animated by feminism’s ideals, doesn’t have to talk about feminism all the time," she realizes. 

Many of the books that have most fostered my, and my female friends', nascent feminism talk about gender and oppression obliquely, rather than in diatribes or manifestos. An essay that captures the tension between what we find ourselves wanting and what our ideals demand, or a novel that reveals a woman as something deeper than an object of desire or ridicule to a man -- these are the works that insinuate themselves into our minds, expanding our consciousness and starting conversations between us. 

While long-time feminist writers have looked askance at the celebrity activism of Watson, her book club seems to show that she's determined to learn and to encourage others to learn. And hey, there can never be too much of something good, so let's add to the shelf. Here are 21 books by women, about women, that are bound to make readers think about the world through a new lens:

  • Graywolf
    The Argonauts is a hybrid memoir-essay by Maggie Nelson that digs deep into our entrenched expectations of motherhood, gender, and human relationships, and asks us to look at these issues from a new angle.
  • HarperCollins
    Alexandra Kleeman's debut is impossible to put down, or stop talking about, as she weaves questions of intimate female friendships and unhealthy body image into a bizarre, alternate-universe thriller.
  • Penguin
    If you haven't yet read popular poet Patricia Lockwood's poem "Rape Joke," don't wait another second; this mind-warping, culturally questioning collection is a conversation-sparker even for those who're intimidated by the poetry form.
  • Graywolf
    Leslie Jamison's acclaimed essay collection may be deeply personal, but it also offers food for thought on more universal issues, like how we talk about women's pain.
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    Asali Solomon's recent novel Disgruntled is a classic coming-of-age story, but also offers readers insights into what challenges come with growing up as a black woman in America, and how parents' ideologies can help and, unintentionally, hurt the children they're trying to protect.
  • Picador
    Why is it so hard for people to say they just don't want kids? Sixteen writers honestly and eloquently explain the societal pressures and gendered expectations, and why they decided to flout them, in this thought-provoking collection.
  • Penguin
    This unsettling crime novel by Ottessa Moshfegh centers on a young, self-loathing young woman and her troubled relationship with her own physicality.
  • Knopf
    Americanah would be a delightful read if nothing more, but it's also a thoughtful parsing of cultural differences, race, and the seemingly small factors that can define our career and relationship choices.
  • Mariner Books
    Mrs. Dalloway may be Virginia Woolf's novel about a society woman throwing a party, but, of course, it's also about submerged sexuality, the demands of marriage and motherhood, and the unlauded arts performed by women of Woolf's time.
  • Picador
    Helen Oyeyemi uses her gift for weaving powerful truths into fantastical fairy tales in this parable about the fraught dynamic between the male writer and the female muse.
  • Knopf
    Mia Alvar's lovely stories of the Filipino diaspora highlight the gulfs found between socioeconomic classes all over the world and the weight of family ties.
  • Simon
    Mary Gaitskill's debut collection Bad Behavior has become a modern classic, in large part for not pulling any punches in depicting isolated, self-destructive, and desperate characters. (But also because her writing is lethally precise.)
  • Harper Perennial
    Okay, this is almost too easy to include, but it definitely gets the feminist-conversation juices flowing.
  • Harper
    A gritty, unflinching novel centered on a young girl captured by a war photographer being blown forward in an Eastern European bomb blast, The Small Backs of Children hones in on the uncomfortable places where sex and violence meet, and the moments of grossness and cruelty and suffering that are usually too painful to depict in fiction.
  • Vintage
    The Bluest Eye was Toni Morrison's first novel, and the first to explore the themes of black femininity and its particular traumas, which she has gone on to heartwrenchingly lay bare the rest of her work.
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    Nobody Is Ever Missing isn't the first novel in which a woman gets to be the unmoored protagonist in search of meaning, but it's still a genre that takes more kindly to men. Catherine Lacey's novel poignantly, in dazzling prose, tells the story of a woman who wants a divorce from her husband, from her life, and from everything, even, in a way, herself.
  • Norton
    This odd, heavily stylized novel juxtaposes two women -- one so beautiful she disguises herself as a plain woman to discern suitors with pure intentions, the other so ugly she composes music that will seduce men for her -- to tease out the many ways in which women are influenced by society's value for physical beauty.
  • Europa
    This is a four-fer! The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante are the literary world's current obsession, and they're packed with the stuff of feminist discussion: ambitious women thwarted by societal circumstances, a strong but fraught female friendship, and romantic relationships that prove less egalitarian than anticipated.

Obviously this doesn't come close to covering it all. Chime in with your own recommendations in the comments!

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