Culture

9 great new books to read this International Women's Day

Authors and literary pros share their must-reads from the last year.

Authors and literary pros share their must-reads from the last year

(Credit, background image: iStock/Getty Images)

Celebrating women's achievements and increasing visibility are important, ongoing goals of the global International Women's Day celebrations happening on and around March 8. 

Last year, ahead of IWD, we asked a number of Canadian book enthusiasts and cultural studies experts for their expert recommendations of new and old books to read that would befit the occasion. For 2020, we thought we would again mark the global day by sharing a themed reading list curated by pro bookworms from across the country. And this time, the picks feature new titles — including novels, non-fiction books, collections of short stories, and a memoir — by women and non-binary authors that have been released in the last year. 

Here are nine must-read books to add to your reading list, for International Women's Day and beyond.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

Rachel Matlow, audio producer, journalist and author of Dead Mom Walking:

"Dildos, bathroom sex, supernatural powers … this book is no bore! In their hilarious debut novel, Lawlor brings the '90s back to life on the page—identity politics, zines, riot grrrl music, et al. The story follows the sexual and romantic adventures of Paul, a hot to trot college student who's able to transform his gender and body at will. Shifting between Paul and Polly, his queer journey of self-discovery takes him from Iowa City to San Francisco, from leather bar to lesbian feminist commune. This trippy novel, written by a nonbinary author, starring a gender non-conforming character (who goes by he/him pronouns), invites us to think more expansively about gender and belonging. 

I love that International Women's Day celebrates 'women's achievements,' but it can often exclude or marginalize trans women and gender nonconforming people. As an AFAB nonbinary person, I sometimes wonder how I fit in. I mean, I want to dismantle the patriarchy as much as the next riot grrrl, but I'd like to join the party as my genderqueer self (rather than it being assumed that I'm a woman). So now that the '90s are over, I hope we can reimagine IWD as an opportunity to recognize and uplift all those who face gender-based oppression, including nonbinary and intersex folks, and especially trans women of colour. Happy IWD y'all!"

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

Rosemary Griebel, Service Design Lead for Readers at Calgary Public Library

"No one writes more authentically or lyrically about the bonds between women than Lisa See. In particular, See loves to mine the lives of women in cultures that are seldom written about. In this newest novel from the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, we learn about the Korean Island of Jeju where collective groups of female divers have been working the sea for centuries. 

The 'Haenyeo' culture is characterized as matrifocal; that is, focused on females. The women do all the difficult and dangerous work of diving to harvest the sea floor, while their husbands remain at home caring for the children and cooking. The relationship of two best friends Young-sook and Mi-ja who come from very different families is at the core of this multigenerational novel. There is betrayal and the atrocities of World War II and the Korean War. Yet, this fierce story reminds us of how women have always found strength and support amongst each other. 'The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.A beautiful testament to female friendships and the resiliency of the spirit."

The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter

Stacey Kondla, customer service assistant at Owl's Nest Books in Calgary, AB:

"This is likely the most important book for women of the past year. It can be hard to figure out what is fact and what is fiction, what is science and what is pseudoscience, and what is helpful and what is hurtful when it comes to the care of women's bodies. A lot of poor and dangerous advice is found on the internet, to the detriment of women. Dr. Jen Gunter provides facts and empowerment for women grounded in science. If you have a vagina and vulva, you need to read this book."

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Justina Elias, bookseller at Munro's Books in Victoria, BC:

"A fairytale romance turns nightmarish in this candid, chilling, and innovative memoir by Carmen Maria Machado. Told through the prisms of different tropes ("Lesbian Cult Classic," "Famous Last Words," "Cautionary Tale"), In the Dream House chronicles Machado's slow dissolution of self at the hands of an abusive lover. Shattering preconceptions about queer relationships, these vignettes prove that both cruelty and resilience take many forms."

Shut Up You're Pretty by Téa Mutonji

Amy Dennis, head of marketing for Toronto International Festival of Authors:

"The experience of growing up female means many things to many people, and Mutonji's debut book offers a distinctive exploration. Though billed as a collection of short stories, the book reads with the fluidity of a novel, observing definitive moments of womanhood through the eyes of a young girl of colour growing up in suburban Toronto. The stories are gritty yet touching, with a dash of dark humour. They offer an honest look at how our experiences as women are shaped by the world around us — our relationships with others, our culture and status — and how our own sense of identity is formed in response to them. 

Reading the book reminded me that the line between who we think we are and who others want us to be is often a thin one. Shut Up You're Pretty questions traditional expectations of femininity and celebrates our unique strengths and imperfections. This book is extra special, as it's the first book published by the highly anticipated new imprint VS. Books, founded by artist Vivek Shraya to spotlight more writers of colour and Indigenous voices. The book has received wide acclaim and was a 2019 finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. I have a feeling this is only the beginning for Téa Mutonji, and suggest readers stay tuned!"

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

Leslie Hurtig, Artistic Director of Vancouver Writers Fest:

"A satirical and unwaveringly real take on modern-day culture and feminism, The Witches Are Coming is the bestselling follow-up to author Lindy West's celebrated memoir and Hulu series, Shrill: Notes form a Loud Woman. West excels at storytelling within this series of tightly-woven essays, giving the reader the sensation of listening to their best and smartest friend rail against the serious injustices and cultural foibles of our time. 

Covering topics from the 'dark lies at the centre of the American mythos' to the misogyny hiding just below the surface of modern media, West outlines how culture and politics entwine to distort our view of what actually makes our neighbour to the south great. Peeling back the stories we tell ourselves, West reveals the truth that is fundamental to change.

We've felt so inspired by The Witches Are Coming that on March 8 we will release a new episode of our audio series Books & Ideasfeaturing West speaking to these issues."

They Said This Would Be Fun by Eternity Martis

Anne T. Donahue, writer and author of Nobody Cares:

"I just finished reading Eternity's memoir, and I've never been so angry that a book had to end. She is so generous in her storytelling, so gifted in the way sorts through her feelings, and her honesty is awe-inspiring. Her essays about family, about growing up, about gender, about race, about sexuality, and about trauma stick with you for days after finishing them, and I think we're all very lucky to be alive in a time when Eternity's chosen to write. Her pieces are so important, and her vulnerability is inspiring. I can't say enough about the magnitude of this book, or the way it feels like she's sitting next to you, simply sharing her story. Her book's out at the end of the month, so pre-order a zillion, and then go to your nearest brick-and-mortar and purchase even more."

I'm Telling The Truth but I'm Lying by Bassey Ikpi

Perdita Felicien, Olympian, CBC broadcaster and author of the upcoming book My Mother's Daughter (Doubleday Canada): 

"Reading this book was as delicious as eating cake, and boy do I love cake! It's a collection of essays on Ikpi's diagnosis of bipolar II, anxiety and other experiences as a Nigerian-American immigrant. For me, it pulled back the veil on mental health, an area I don't have much experience in but want to understand more about, especially in the black community. 

I felt what the writer felt many times while reading, both physically and emotionally. It placed me well outside my comfort zone but to empathize and comprehend I think this was necessary. This book is an excellent deep-dive into one woman's mind and life and I appreciated that. I whole heartedly recommend you read it."

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez

Åsa Kachan, Chief Librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries:

"This is an immensely readable book of statistics and facts that illustrate how just about everything around us has been designed with males in mind. The impact of not collecting and considering data about and from women is evident everywhere: not enough women's bathrooms; crash test dummies that make cars safer for men; and gender bias in medical research, urban planning, hiring practices and snow clearing. Sometimes the consequence is irritation (like the cell phone that doesn't quite fit my hand); more alarming is how often the data bias results in misdiagnosis, injury or death to women.

In Criado Perez's words, to fail to account for half of humanity in the design of our world is not just sexist, but 'manifestly unjust, and economically illiterate.'"


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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