First, here’s the list of my ten all-time favorites, all in one place. Again, they are in no particular order:

1. The Mists of Avalon and The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley
2. The Year the Horses Came and The Horses at the Gate by Mary Mackey (Also called the first two books of The Earthsong Trilogy)
3. The Skeptical Feminist by Barbara Walker
4. Red Azalea by Anchee Minn
5. Revolution From Within - and Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem
6. The Dykes to Watch Out For series by Alison Bechdel
7.  Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
9. Grassroots by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
10. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In re-reading my list, a few conclusions….

-       These books are political! For lack of a better term. Is that a surprise? I think some of my coworkers would say I’m mild-mannered and quiet. But yes, I am a lesbian and a feminist so I guess it makes sense that these are the books that inspired me, even if I don’t look like the stereotypical activist.
-       Demographics: all the writers are women (one male writer made it to the Honorable Mention section, below), most are white (one Black, one Asian). One of the writers is deceased (Marion Zimmer Bradley); I think the others are still in the land of the living. Barbara Walker and Gloria Steinem are octogenarians.
-       Of the books on here that are fiction, almost all have LGBT characters (either central to the plot or at least as important supporting characters).
-       You know those book reports that I post regularly, and how so few books ever get a grade of A? This list is the reason why. I tend to reserve A’s for books of this caliber.

Honorable mentions: The Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marillier (breathtaking historical fantasy); The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler (see my review of The Year the Horses Came); Affinity by Sarah Waters (this is where I wish I’d decided to make my list longer than 10, because this novel has that spot-on mix of setting, characters, and plot); The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie (epic historical fiction – makes me marvel at the author’s talent and wish all historical fiction was at this caliber); Happiness is a Choice by Barry Neil Kaufman (published in 1991 and recommended to me by a friend, it greatly influenced how I think about happiness and how I approach life); The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk (a novel with a somewhat similar theme as The Mists of Avalon and The Year the Horses Came – perhaps it relies too much on magic but is still compelling – the author also wrote a great prequel); The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert (a woman-friendly retelling of MacBeth; I have a feeling that had I read it when I was younger, it would be on the main list and not just an Honorable Mention); Whipping Girl by Julia Serrano (great trans manifesto, also great defense of femininity).
10. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Full disclosure: I went back and forth with this book, debating whether it belonged on the list or if I should swap it out with one of the Honorable Mentions (which I will post next). But I decided to keep Atwood’s dystopian novel in. It was chilling and adrenaline-pumping and almost unilaterally depressing. I certainly have never forgotten it and certainly was changed after reading it, no doubt about that. It reminds me how precious freedom is and how easily it can be taken away. The plot summary: right-wing religious have taken over the US and women aren’t allowed to have jobs or read or anything like that, and must live under one of a few prescribed roles such as handmaid (for the few who aren’t barren) or econowife – that is, for those who aren’t enslaved for crimes such as gender treachery (being gay).

Many of the books on my list have endings that are somewhat happy or at least provide some hope and inspiration. This is by far the gloomiest. But like I said, I remember reading it while I was in high school (so, early 1990’s) and my heart really was pounding and my head swimming with ideas and fears. And given the Republican Party (and Tea Party)’s obsessions with restricting reproductive rights and banning same-sex marriage, you can see that Atwood was right on the money here.

After this, the final post will have Honorable Mentions, a few closing thoughts about the list, and it will list numbers 1-10 all together (since I've been spelling them out piecemeal).

9. Grassroots by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

This one came out in 2005 and is by far the most recently-published book on
this list. The subtitle is “A field guide for feminist activism”, and
that’s exactly what the book is. The authors were motivated to write it
because people kept asking them what exactly they could do to effect social
change.

The book influenced me in a couple ways. It helped me realize that there’s
more than one way to be an activist. I don’t need to quit my job and tie
myself to a tree or get arrested demonstrating in DC! There are other forms
activism can take, including the fact that I can weave it into my own life
(like, starting an LGBT group at my company or volunteering for a group that
provides business clothing to women – things I’ve actually done!) Heck,
maybe for me it quiets the part of my voice that reminds me that Alison
Bechdel would not fully approve of how I live my life.

Also, this book helped me realize that I like books that help you do
something, that provide practical advice - and even better when they help you
do something that makes a difference in the world. Nothing against theory, but
there’s a lot to be said for practicality. Maybe those words also describe
the approach I’ve taken to my life.


8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I know this book is on everyone’s Top 10 list. (Well, every woman like me, that is). But that’s because it deserves it. I could give props to the novel’s plot, writing style, setting that pulls you in and grabs you. But I’m trying to keep this top 10 list centered around what the book means to me. So, to me personally, I love this book. It shows one woman’s agency in a nearly hopeless situation, it shows the power of women to support each other be they friends or lovers or both, and it gives me an approach to spirituality that makes sense to me.

When I get to the end, I'll post just the list itself with a few closing thoughts. Two more to go after this!


7.  Into the Forest by Jean Hegland

This is a gripping, unforgettable novel. Taking place in current times, the book describes two teenaged sisters living in Northern California as the nation and the world gradually shut down – no electricity or gas, riots in the inner cities, communications having broken down, rampant illnesses killing off people and leaving others confined to their homes, etc. In other words, humanity is going out with a whimper, not a bang, and the girls are left to fend for themselves.

What makes this book so remarkable to me? Maybe because I can totally see it happening, because the girls are so real, because it’s the best kind of page-turner, one with heart. Maybe because it quietly provides commentary on our world. In any case, I read it circa 1998 and thought of it often over the years.  So, after starting to work on this report, I decided to re-read it just this past week and I can basically say that the book tore my heart open and slowly repaired it.  It made me despair for humanity but feel a few glimmers of hope. The book knocked me over - again.

(As an aside, I just learned that this book is being made into a movie staring Ellen Page. OMG!!!!)

Continuing on with the list of my ten favorite books of all-time. I also have to add that working on this list and re-reading some of the books on it is not helping with the books I’m currently reading for the first time. It’s really hard for any books to hold a candle to these.

5. Revolution From Within - and Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem

These are both works of nonfiction by the renowned feminist activist and author.  I think these books are a good contrast to The Skeptical Feminist (a book which also made my list and was in yesterday’s post).  Steinem is always thoughtful and optimistic. She sees the difference that one person can make and encourages us to make that difference. She sees the horrors of patriarchy but doesn’t succumb to despair. She reminds us that we can stand up, band together with other women, and change the world.

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions was first published in 1983  (and is still in print – yay!) and definitely gives you a sense of how much has changed and how much has not. The book is half-history and half-inspiration. Revolution from Within came along later, 1992, and reminds us to nurture our self esteem as we fight the good fight.

6. The Dykes to Watch Out For series by Alison Bechdel

I’m not sure I can overstate how much Alison Bechdel influenced me. From circa 1987 to 2008, Bechdel wrote a comic strip about a group of friends – mostly a group of lesbian women, although that broadened over the years . I want to describe these books in my own words, but I am going to borrow from the jacket of “The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For”, to better describe the series: “Bechdel’s brilliantly imagined countercultural band of friends – academics, social workers, bookstore clerks – fall in and out of love, negotiate friendships, raise children, switch careers, and cope with aging parents…..(The series) fuses high and low culture – from foreign policy to domestic routine, postmodern theory to hot sex.”

I love the fact that over the decades, Bechdel shifted from having only cisgendered lesbian characters to featuring a wider range: children, male feminists, trans characters,  bisexuals, etc. She once explained that the change occurred because her allegiance moved from those who shared one characteristic with her (lesbian) to those who shared her social and political views.

Dykes to Watch Out For kind of taught me how to be a lesbian, even though I know Bechdel – and her main character, Mo – would strongly disapprove of my choice to work for a corporate behemoth. Somehow, I don’t care or at least I can live with the contradiction. Bechdel’s work is still the lesbian bible even if my career choice means I’ve strayed from the flock a bit.



Continuing on with my list of my ten favorite books of all-time, with #s 3 and 4.

3. The Skeptical Feminist by Barbara Walker

This isn’t the best feminist book ever written, but it really shaped and defined me. I read it circa 1991  (it was published in 1987 and is out of print now). Barbara Walker is full of righteous feminist fury as she describes patriarchal religion and the havoc it has wrecked on our world. I think I have to include it in any list of books that influenced me. It really helped motivate me to get out and get politically active, a decision which definitely changed my life.

4. Red Azalea by Anchee Minn

This is the only memoir on this list (I’m counting The Skeptical Feminist as more of a polemic than memoir). Red Azalea describes Minn’s life growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution and trying to survive when her family is shunned, she’s a pariah, and she is sent to labor on a remote farm. She finds love with another laborer, but love and personal expression are forbidden.

Why is a memoir on this list, and why this memoir in particular, considering that there are so many good ones? One, this book kind of opened the door to me reading more memoirs and making me realize that learning from one person’s lived experience is a great way to walk in someone else’s shoes and have empathy.  Also, although I wouldn’t say I was naïve beforehand, Red Azalea did help me appreciate the luck I had to be born and raised in the circumstances I was.  It was amazing to read about someone trying to survive in a culture that truly had gone crazy. Perhaps the fact is also that I first read Red Azalea quite some time ago and it’s never really left me.


Continuing on with my list of my ten favorite books of all-time...


2. The Year the Horses Came and The Horses at the Gate by Mary Mackey (Also called the first two books of The Earthsong Trilogy)

These are two works of fiction taking place in pre-historical Europe. Our heroine and her culture are peaceful, cooperative, and egalitarian but the patriarchal societies from the east begin to invade, pillage, and destroy. (Similar theme as The Mists of Avalon, I see). So our heroes have to see if they can stave off the advance of these invaders while holding true to their non-violent beliefs.

A few years before reading this, I’d read The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, a wonderful, well-researched work that makes the case that pre-historical cultures may have been not unlike the ones described here – peaceful and respecting of human rights. I have to believe that Mary Mackey also read it and let it influence these stories. I view these books as the fictional counterparts to The Chalice and the Blade.

By the way, there is also a third book in this series (called The Fires of Spring – ugh, same title as a James Michener book), and it was good but sadly not up to the standards of the first two.
THE TEN BEST - EVER

I’ve been doing Book Reports for a long time because I like taking a minute to reflect on what I read, but I’ve never stepped back to  write about the books that influenced me the most over the years. So for a while now, I’ve been thinking about this subject and wanting to do a Top Ten. I’d say these are a cross between the books that influenced me the most and the books that I’ve simply enjoyed the most.  Doris saw what I was doing (since I’ve been writing this post with copies of the books stacked around me, for days), and she summed it up by saying that this is a list of how to understand who I am.

Most of these books I read a long time ago, but that makes sense. It’s much easier to say that I was influenced by something I read 10 years ago and had a decade to think about rather than something that I read 3 months ago.  You also won’t find any books that are considered traditional classics on here. I’ve enjoyed many a “Jane Eyre” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” over the years, but they didn’t speak to me as much as these did.

To keep from having a mega-long post, I am instead going to do 10 separate posts.  The books will be listed in no particular order.

Oh, and I did cheat since I sometimes counted a few related books as one. (Such as here, with my very first post).


1. The Mists of Avalon and The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Even though my list isn’t in any order, the above two by Marion Zimmer Bradley might in fact be my all-time favorites and that really says a lot given the sheer volume of how many books I knock off in a year. They are just perfect works of fiction. In both cases, I became engrossed in the worlds that Bradley created and I cared deeply for the characters. I’ve read these novels at least three times each, and each time I see more layers and depth in them. Each time I’ve also spent the last 100 pages or so crying – not necessarily out of sadness but more because of the culmination of emotions that I got swept up in.

The Mists of Avalon is a re-telling of the King Arthur legend but from the perspective of his sister Morgaine who is part of a goddess-worshipping tradition, a place which is literally and figuratively slipping into the mist as patriarchy and Christianity overtake the land.

The Catch Trap takes place amidst a traveling circus and stars two men who have fallen in love with each other. If others find out, their careers will be over and their families will reject them. Some folks say that straight authors should never try to tell gay characters’ stories, but I totally disagree. If the writer is good, she can and should write about all of humanity.


 
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