I’ve always been a fiction reader. While I’ve certainly read some nonfiction—mostly personal essays and memoirs, because of the narrative—when it comes to longform work, I’ve always been more drawn to fiction.
Serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee—helping to put together a list of the year’s best feminist books for readers 0-18—has forced me to broaden my reading horizons, and to my surprise, I’m finding that I not only love reading it, I’ve been seeking more and more of it out. I rather suspect that my reading habits will never be the same, and I’m so grateful for that.
Here are a few of the recent standouts:
Marie Curie’s daughter and her husband discovered artificial radioactivity. Lise Meitner designed, interpreted, and explained the experiment that led to our understanding of nuclear fission. The work of these two women was at the ground floor of our understanding of nuclear power and kicked off the atomic age—so why are they mostly unknown now? (I’ll give you one guess.)
If you tend to read your nonfiction in bits and pieces, rather than from beginning to end, DON’T MISS Chapter 10: Fleeing Hitler’s Germany, which covers the not-so-slow erosion of civil rights in Germany under Hitler’s regime, and Meitner’s eventual escape. It’s horrifying, it’s scary, and Conkling’s descriptions are suspenseful and enraging, but never exploitative. And definitely don’t miss Meitner’s letters to Otto Hahn—the long-time friend and lab partner who ultimately threw her under the metaphorical bus—they’re angry, they’re honest, they’re heartbreaking, they’re beautiful.
Bad Girls of Fashion: Style Rebels from Cleopatra to Lady Gaga, written by Jennifer Croll and illustrated by Ada Buchholc
Bright, funny, and fascinating, with a broad range of diverse subjects. In addition to being an utter blast to read, this book takes fashion—a subject so often dismissed as frivolous and shallow—and shows how it’s been used throughout history as a powerful, dynamic tool for communication, change, and yes, self-expression. HUGE FUN.
Nellie Bly used investigative journalism to break gender barriers. She used it to shine a spotlight on inequality and corruption. And she used it to make a name, a life, and a living for herself in a world that didn’t believe women could—or should—do any of those things. Inspiring.
I’ve been gushing about each one of these books for days, though I had a few quibbles, too:
The Noyes book, in working to explain how difficult life was for single mothers in the late 19th century, glosses over how some of those same issues still apply in the modern day. In framing Nellie’s mother’s eventual escape from an abusive marriage as “What Took So Long?” Noyes neglects to acknowledge the uneven power dynamics inherent in abusive relationships, an issue that is still hugely relevant in the current day. I wished, too, that there had been concrete information about what happened to women of color who struggled with mental illness in Nellie’s era—as Noyes never specified that Blackwell’s Island was integrated, I assumed that it was not, and my quick checks online turned up nothing—and the only real nod to the gender/race intersection was a mention of Nellie’s “casual racism” in the Author’s Note.
The Croll book occasionally uses some dated terminology—“sexual preference” rather than “sexual orientation,” for instance. And finally, the Conkling book is somewhat uneven: the sections about Lise Meitner are utterly riveting, while the sections about Irène Curie are a bit more dry—sometimes even a textbook-y slog. As I said, though, when weighed against the strength of the books as a whole, all of those issues—while worth noting—were comparatively minor.
More titles welcome, of course—and I’m sure I’ll have another handful to recommend soon!
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.