Amazing reads to devour ahead of International Women's Day

Canadian experts and writers share their personal must-reads.

Canadian experts and writers share their personal must-reads

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Ahead of International Women's Day on March 8, we reached out to Canadian book enthusiasts and experts for their recommendations of great reads, both new books and old favourites, befitting the day.

Here are a dozen books that resonate deeply, for them, the experience of being a woman in the world today. Crystallizing, reflecting, challenging, or contextualizing the public and private lives of women now and through recent history, these diverse and powerful reads are a perfect way to get introspective and feel inspired this month.

Maman apprivoisée : poèmes – poems by Geneviève Elverum

Marie-Ève Plamondon, coordinating librarian at Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec:

"Québécois poet, cartoonist, and musician Geneviève Elverum (also known as Genevieve Castrée) died in 2016 at the age of 35, following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Her book of poems is a farewell letter to her daughter, to motherhood, to her dreams, and to life itself. Reading them plunges us into the mental and emotional state of a woman who, four months after giving birth to her first child, finds out she has inoperable stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The poems' short, powerful verses, the inner turmoil they reveal, shot through with great strength and resilience, make this a deeply moving book in which light and dark walk hand in hand. Translated into English by Benoît Chaput, this remarkable collection brings a profoundly feminine touch to such universal themes as motherhood, mourning, illness, death and the end of everything."

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Nathalie Atkinson, freelance culture writer and film critic:

"Thick by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, an American sociologist, black feminist academic and the public intellectual we all need right now, is the book I've been pressing on everyone lately. (Cottom is also the writer of that 2013 viral essay about why poor people buy expensive stuff.) The layered, 360-degree essays here cover a lot of complex ground: Respectability politics, beauty and self, the importance of the personal essay genre for marginalized voices, how the American healthcare system is imbued with white supremacy.

Thick doesn't in any way reflect or crystallize my own experiences as a woman, and that's the point. There's no shortage of white middle class feminist writing, and space given to it, and much of the cultural, social history and sociology that I come across for work has a narrow and historically white lens too. This book is intense—there were some tough truths that put me in what you might call a discomfort zone and challenged me in unexpected but necessary ways."

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

Amber Norcott, librarian at Vancouver Public Library

"Drift along through various encounters during a literary festival in this plot-free but hypnotic conclusion to Cusk's "Outline" trilogy. The narrator observes her mostly female dining companions, literary panelists, and fellow travellers, and the intimate stories of their lives and troubles will make you ponder the question of female freedom and identity in even a privileged world. The style that Cusk has created — a sort of weaponized passivity — is a disorienting and radical achievement."

The Red Word by Sarah Henstra

Caroline Crowe, librarian at Vancouver Public Library

"Winner of the prestigious 2018 Governor General's award, The Red Word by Canadian writer Sarah Henstra is a hilarious and intellectual work of literature. The story follows Karen Huls in her years at a university in the 1990s when she moves into a communal house with fraternity-hating, ultra-feminist radical women. Karen distinguishes herself from the pack by dating a notorious fraternity boy. At times this book is as fun as reading YA fiction, yet its themes are uniquely crucial. Henstra offers critical insight into rape culture, gender power dynamics, the fluidity of identity, and the experience of living as a woman today."

Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani 

Amanda Gauthier, category manager, print, at Indigo:

"Reshma Saujani is the mentor every woman needs. She articulates the necessary shift women need to make to embrace bravery in every part of their life, but in particular their careers. [Also that] by being afraid to fail and setting perfection as a standard, we are contracting our contributions. For me, her call to rewire our brains for bravery, and her challenge to 'get caught trying' open up the possibility of a career path that is challenging but also stimulating. Her strategy for bringing other women along on that journey is inspiring."

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Najwa Zebian, poet, speaker, and author of Sparks of Phoenix:

"I remember reading this book and feeling like someone threw a bucket of cold water in my face. I could suddenly see all of the things about myself that I resented for so long and believed caused me pain. Now, all I wanted to do was love those parts of myself and embrace them. I wanted to separate who I made myself believe I was from who I actually was. And instead of wanting to hide the parts of myself that made me who I am (my sensitivity, vulnerability and depth), I now wanted to give a hug to the girl and the woman I'd been pushing to the side for so long. The one I'd been putting down and letting go for so long. It changed my understanding of shame and vulnerability in a way that changed my vision of the world. And, most importantly, it saved the true me, so I could become the person who I am."

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Alex Snider, co-owner of Queen Books

"This is a collection of short stories, each centering [on] a woman struggling at a pivotal moment. I love this collection because Campbell does a beautiful job of highlighting the intersection of class and gender, and challenges our ideas of familial roles. The stories point out the ways that even in the spaces that are meant to be safest, violence has a way of seeping in.

One of my favourites is the title story which is about a dying woman, consumed by internalized misogyny, looking back on her life as a mother and how she did her best even despite what her daughter's women studies degree says. She is a maddening yet deeply sympathetic character who crystallizes in a gut-wrenching way generation differences and how much society has changed (for the better) when it comes to feminism, sexual assault, and gender expectations. Campbell's writing is powerful, devastating and hopeful, I'm always left feeling inspired to be more compassionate and understanding."

I Hear She's a Real Bitch by Jen Agg

Michele Melady, manager, collection development & membership services at Toronto Public Library:

"I've just started reading I Hear She's a Real Bitch. It's a memoir of the restaurant industry by the former owner of Toronto's groundbreaking The Black Hoof restaurant, and it was nominated for a Toronto Book Award in 2017. I'm enjoying Agg's no-holds-barred take on the male-dominated industry she continues to rule. And I'm recommending it because it's a pleasure to read a book that is both unequivocally feminist, and grounded in the nitty-gritty details of a woman's life and work."

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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

"Memoirs are my favourite types of book to read, so I wasn't surprised to fall in love with Wild (or Cheryl Strayed, for that matter). But where the book is largely touted as the story of a young woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail to process the grief of losing her mother, what I loved was the way Strayed reconciles who she was with who she is, and whether the mistakes she'd made over the course of her life could be redeemed. Or, maybe most importantly, if she should even want them to be.

I love this book, and it gave me the courage to write about my own ups and downs, and to (try to) do so in an honest and authentic way — which can be (read: is) terrifying. But that makes Cheryl's memoir even more powerful. Because if she can embrace herself, her choices, and her history, so can the rest of us. And we might not even have to hike the PCT to do it."   

Pursuing Giraffe (2006) and Smitten By Giraffe (2016) by Anne Innis Dagg

Barb Minett, co-creator of The Bookshelf:

"There could be few books more timely and important to celebrate on International Women's Day than Smitten By Giraffe and Pursuing Giraffe by Waterloo resident Dr. Anne Innis Dagg. It's highly unlikely that you have heard of her but she was the first woman ever to study animals in the wild. (Yes, even beating the beloved Jane Goodall.) In the '50s, Dagg went to Tanzania as a young graduate student to follow her passion and produced excellent and comprehensive field results. She is still the world expert on giraffes.

If you have seen the movie The Woman Who Loves Giraffes you will know that she was turned down for tenure at two Canadian universities, even though she was far more prolific than other (male) candidates. For years, she has been involved in pressuring universities to give equal pay and opportunity to female professors, and unfortunately this is a problem that continues to this very day. To say that she is a trailblazer is an understatement. She deserves great recognition and as a large readership as possible."

Writing Women in Modern China: The Revolutionary Years by Amy D. Dooling

Dr. Anup Grewal, assistant professor, Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, UTSC:

"I would recommend a translated collection of Chinese women's short fiction/reportage and other literary genres spanning the 1930s to the late 1970s (the years of revolution, the early PRC and the late Cultural Revolution period). The stories themselves [are great], but also the very thorough and accessibly-written introduction point us to key themes animating the history of International Women's Day, including the connections between feminist projects and socialist projects.

The book also presents early/mid twentieth-century Chinese women writers' views on the micropolitics of women's experience of themselves as gendered, classed, raced, and otherwise positioned subjects—including within socialist societies. The literary works reveal such key themes from the realm of the imagination, which is a space in which the horizons of actual experience can be critically presented but also where new possibilities, including new solidarities, can be enacted. Some of my favourites in this collection are Bai Wei's "Third Class Hospital Ward," Hu Lanqi's "In a German Women's Prison" (which makes a connection between friendship, chocolate and revolution), Zong Pu's "Red Beans" (about revolutionary romance), and Ru Zhijuan's "In the Warmth of Spring" (about a couple in the post-revolutionary period, trying to recalibrate gender relations within the home and in the workplace)." 

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


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