Thanksgiving is here and I want to give thanks to five women writers who in 2009 excited, enlivened, and energized me through their great books. Maybe these books did not make the male-dominated Publisher's Weekly List of Top Ten Books of 2009 but they made my top ten list in a year in which to date I have reviewed 380 books on www.readallday.org.
These five writers worked magic for me. I sat down with each of their books and did not get up again until the last page was turned. These were the kind of books that left my mouth open in exhilaration, my heart pounding with satisfaction, and my fingers itchy to write about how great they were. My only regret was that there were not more pages in each book to consume and enjoy.
For me, great writing is defined by a writer being fearless, engaging, original, and sincere. All of these books were all of that, and more.
1) Ruins by Achy Obejas is a beautifully written, heart-wrenching novel about the dignity of one man in the face of harsh daily deprivations and the slow deterioration of his dreams. Set in Cuba in 1994, it tells the story of Usnavy, a man fated to live his life under the shadow of the United States and yet determined to live as a proud Cuban and to hold faith in the revolution that Che Guevara promised.
2) Alice Fantastic by Maggie Estep is a charming and down-dirty story about lucky and plucky Alice, her clumsy sister Eloise, and their dog rescuing, ex-junkie mother. The novel presents the hilarious and heartbreaking ways people intertwine, overlap and just plain run over each other in the acts of love, friendship, sex, and gambling, and all other necessary acts of resistance.
3) How To Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall presents the stories of four very different and yet mysteriously intertwined characters. They have each suffered a devastating loss of some kind and they cope in different ways, and against currents of misunderstanding, loathing, fear, and wavering self-examination. The novel is utterly life affirming with its exploration of why and how we humans go on living despite the withering bouts of pain we must endure.
4) For Grace Received by Valeria Parrella is a collection of short stories about the grace that occurs when ordinary life meets extraordinary action. Her characters are from all walks of life in Naples. What they all share is the desire to break out of their conscripted box of duties and expectations and reach up into the universe of possibility, finding new delight in, or needed relief from, their daily existence.
5) The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a collection of short stories that celebrates the determination and endurance of women circumscribed by tradition or poverty or custom to move beyond their defined slots in life and find a new place and a new definition for themselves. By challenging long-held beliefs, these women are able to reveal new possibilities and undeniable truths, bridging the Nigeria they are rooted in and the new world (either literally or figuratively) that will set them free.