10 Must Read Books for Girls and Boys, by Boys and Girls

EcoSalon recently published the hit article, “20 Must Read Books for Women,” in which you probably noticed a few books you’ve read and a few others that you’d like to read, as well. What you might have also noticed was that the list included no books written by men.

Might there be must-reads for women written by male authors? We’re not talking about tomes that you’d file under the “how to better understand the blue side of the species” (read: self-help for guys, porn, or maybe bios on Messrs. Churchill or Jordan). Just solid works, by men, that might be of such great value to a female audience that someone might place them in the “don’t miss” bin.

Continuing the series of must read books, we’re offering an addendum our previous list and presenting five books written by men that we think would be great for women readers. And as a yin to our yang, noting that the guys ought to be reading more essentials by women, we’re also offering five books written by women that would do well on any man’s bookshelf.

Five books for women, written by men:

1. The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway


Bravado and bulls have had Papa pegged as guy’s writer going back to “The Sun Also Rises” (1926) and Jake Barnes’ classic last line to Lady Brett Ashley: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” But Ernest Hemingway remains a quintessential American master, whose crisp, quick sentences act as simple brush stokes to create unflinchingly real and complex images, relationships and storylines. In “The Garden of Eden” (published posthumously in 1986) he shows a depth and tenderness that’s unburdened by Great War or greater fish. Here, Hemingway tells the tale of a love triangle, androgyny and gender reversal, putting down his gloves and allowing access to a wide(r?) range of readers into his inimitable world and style.

2. The World According to Garp – John Irving 


In his 1978 classic “The World According to Garp,” John Irving’s  male hero navigates an obstacle course of a life chock full of tricky sexual relations, male vulnerability and ignorance, and sometimes extreme feminism. The book features bold, loving and dangerous female characters (as well as a fantastic cross-dressing nurse), who surround Garp as he struggles to find his place in life and tell his story. Irving handles characters of both sexes extraordinarily well, displaying an ambidexterity that’s not easy to come by and speaks to the difficultly of making book suggestions like these difficult in the first place.

3. True Grit – Charles Portis


A classic western with uncharacteristic depth, Charles Portis’ “True Grit” (1968) lacks none of gun-slinging, foul language and, yes, grit of the greatest American entries in this genre. Its character sensitivities and ambiguities, however, are seldom seen in such novels, save perhaps in that of the work of the great Cormac McCarthy (“All the Pretty Horses,” “Blood Meridian,” “No Country for Old Men”). Unlike McCarthy, Portis’ bleak landscape offers up a sad humor regarding the human condition, as heroine Mattie Ross recalls the great adventure of her childhood in which she seeks to avenge the death of her father with the help renegade lawmen. Read the book before seeing the Coen brothers’ super remake of the John Wayne classic.

4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men – David Foster Wallace


There’s been a lot of talk lately about the current generation of male authors’ inability to deal with sex and sexual issues. Some, like NYU’s Katie Roiphe, point to a reactive, “wimping out” of the sensitive male, a “new purity” of “self-conscious paralysis.” David Foster Wallace, however, had a knack for staring down our culture on many issues, including sexual relations. In this 1998 collection of short stories (a number of which bear the book’s title), Wallace explores many modern themes, including sexual alienation. Never an easy read, Wallace is always worth the effort. His short stories and essays are an excellent way access to his work and an alternative for those who are reticent to scale his dense masterpiece, “Infinite Jest.”

5. American Pastoral – Philip Roth


Up there with Norman Mailer as the male writer most consistently pummeled for unrepentant misogyny, big bad Philip Roth’s primal scream of “Portnoy’s Complaint” (his celebrated 1969 novel that so prevalently featured its main character’s penis) has softened into an older, wiser, sadder sigh in this masterwork. It’s not so much that Roth seems to have rethought his view of the relationship between men and women, per se, but more like the evidence is in that, as his characters have aged, infatuation with that issue is somehow beside the point – and was perhaps a red herring all along. Here, a man’s traditional middle class experience is upended by the historical elements and trace madness that weaved their way through the American landscape in second half of 20th century.

And five books for men, written by women:

6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece (which made our previous must-read list) presents a futuristic nightmare for all women, where a male-dominated extremist faction has taken over the nation and created a world where women are forbidden to read, work, or have their own name; their roles, from servant to child bearer, are determined by the men who control their lives. The chilling effect of the story is made more severe by the tone of Atwood’s prose that offers emotions and imagery of true fear in a world whose potential “realness” (think a Western version of Taliban Afghanistan) will make any reader shudder.

7. A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan


Magnificent craftsmanship and a unique use of postmodern technique give Jennifer Egan’s recent novel (2010) a cross-time, cross-genre sensibility, and a certain humanity that one might find lacking in the cooler works of Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and other well-known, male postmodern masters. Egan’s book opens with story of a kleptomaniac woman and jumps from chapter to chapter, with each one bringing a seemingly ancillary character into the spotlight without regard to chronology or consistency of style. What emerges is a sense of realism and emotional breadth that could not come from a simple “once-upon-a-time” experience.

8. The Young Romantics – Daisy Hay


Our lists’ only non-fiction entry is a biographical work that not only reexamines the lives of some history’s most famous men, but does so in the context of the women who shared their lives, offering up a new, more accurate approach to the entire genre. Daisy Hay looks at Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and the other Romantic Era authors, examining  their lives as unified matrix, rather than as purely individual stories, showing how their interpersonal relationships affected both their creative and personal selves. Mary Shelley, the author of “Frankenstein” (a certain contender for this half of our list) is in fact the epicenter of the story, lending a more feminist (and in this case accurate) approach to exploring the period. Most important, though, is that the book is just a great read, with the feel of excellent historical fiction. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

9. Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather


Willa Cather’s evokes the emerging American West by eliciting depth and complexity from basic character archetypes to capture a sense of the nation in a uniquely powerful manner. “Death Comes for the Archbishop” (1927) tells the story of two men, Bishop Jean Marie Latour (an intellectual “tower”) and his friend Father Joseph Vaillant (a valiant defender of the faith) who are charged with taking over a Spanish diocese in New Mexico after the territory is acquired by the United States. The works taps into the relationship between ideas and the frontier landscape and as such rings true as an authentic American tale without swollen bravado and fanfare.

10. A Spy in the House of Love – Anais Nin


Anais Nin’s 1954 novel emerges from the mind of Sabina, a married woman involved in a number of adulterous affairs, who sees herself a spy or witness to her own experiences. Nin’s dreamy, yet unflinching  style (that also lends itself so well her erotic writings) creates a intense psychological atmosphere, where the reader crawls inside the thought processes and sensitivities of a woman as she betrays the man she loves in order to explore her own personal nuances. Inside info, guys? Maybe. An ethereal, semi-autobiographical tale that offers an intimate view into a woman’s complicated life.

Main Image: Valerie Everett

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott@adelson.org.