Sisters Speak: Recommendations for Great Reading

Girl With Book by Alexander Sokht

I’m always on the lookout for wonderful books that expand my mind, take me into a completely different worldview, or challenge my preconceptions. I’m also on the lookout for books that are just great page-turners.

One of my favorite finds of the last few years was a book called The High Flyer by Susan Howatch. It’s a psychological thriller about a newly married lawyer and her husband who has secrets from his past. What made the book so fascinating to me is that it also revolves around a charismatic Anglican priest who helps this woman deal with questions of evil, redemption, and God as her life breaks down around her. To have the Christian message explained in such fresh psychological and theological language gave me a new and absolutely compelling framework through which to look at religion. This Hitchcockian page-turner inspired me to devour the eight other novels this author wrote about priests in the Anglican church.

What books have impacted you and your understanding of the world? What books have you just plain loved because they were so much fun? Why did they leave such an impression on you?

(n.b. I will email some of you and request to include your comment in the Sisters Speak column of the Exponent II magazine.)


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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39 Responses

  1. HokieKate says:

    “Tess of the D’Urbvilles”, because of it’s treatment of peoples’ reactions to learning of others’ sexual histories. I was a BYU undergrad when I first read it, and the environment that I was in very much condemned any sexual history. While reading, though, I realized I could not make that same condemnation of others, and it enabled me to be accepting of my boyfriend’s less-than-perfect past.

  2. amelia says:

    Is a ten page essay in response okay? 😛

    I’m cogitating on this, Caroline, and will post an actual response once I’ve been able to whittle down to something of a reasonable size.

  3. Whoa-man says:

    I second Tess. It buttressed my feminist leanings.

    I’m personally drawn to non-fiction and while some think these are boring I find them ridiculously entertaining. Mostly anything by Bill Bryson, particularly his early memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt kid” for laugh out loud humor or his “A Short History of Nearly Everything” for fascinating fun. Another favorite in the popular science nonfiction arena is “Survival of the Sickest” by Sharon Moalem which will undoubtedly blow your mind by the chapter on host-pathogen interactions even though it sounds like you’d be asleep after the title (Here’s a link to The Daily Show interview about it–sharon-moalem). One that has incredible applications to almost any social, religious, or scientific scenario and that continues to frame my thinking is Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. On a feminist note I’m recently obsessed with Stephanie Coontz’s “A Strange Stirring” it is strange how so many of the 1963 quotes and comments ring true for modern LDS thought. And I can’t say enough about Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge”. Finally, I loved “The Survivors Club” by Ben Sherwood, “What is the What” by Dave Eggers, and “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. For fiction, I’m loyal to the oldies but goodies “Jane Eyre”, “The Count of Monte Christo”, and “The Three Muskateers.”

    Lest anyone think I’m stuffy and pretentious with this list of mostly non-fiction pop science and classics I am also an expert in popular and gossip magazines. Glamour is by far the best with a rich mix of silly escapism and actual pith. Scientific American Mind will keep your attention all night and US Weekly will distract you from all of the important things you need to do. 🙂

    • Dora says:

      Agreed that _Refuge_ is fabulous. It’s also almost a codeword as well. It’s difficult to talk about mormon feminism with strangers, but easier if I know that the person liked_Refuge,_ or even knows what Exponent II is

    • alex w. says:

      So happy to hear I’m not the only one who enjoys Glamour. I’m often pleasently surprised by the variety and quality of articles mixed in with this month’s top nail polish/hair style/movie.

  4. Silrad says:

    The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt is fabulous! It’s about a 12 year old boy who is the only one left when half the class goes off to Jewish school, half goes to catechism, and he is left alone with the 7th grade teacher who hates him, while he deals with his role as a Shakespearean actor, baseball aficianado, a family breaking down before his very eyes, in the midst of the late ’60’s political activism. This is a wonderful walk down Memory Lane (if you are old enough), a great examination of a coming-of-age tale, a look at your children’s (grand’s) life as a teenager, all the while being funny, touching, engrossing, and an amazingly good read. My book club read and discussed this and everyone really enjoyed the book and discussing life’s catastrophies in its light. Great book–check it out.
    I must say also that we also read Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and not one person liked it enough to actually read it all the way through. It was a big disappointment.

    • Dee says:

      So sad that you didn’t like ‘Notes from a Small Island’. I loved it and laughed almost all the way through – but perhaps that’s because I grew up in England and could relate!

  5. Whoa-man says:

    uh-oh. Sorry Silrad. I guess not all of his are great. I didn’t enjoy his Shakespeare book at all, but you just can’t help but laugh and laugh on the thunderbolt kid. It also gave me a better sense of the world that my parents grew up in and how different our social and physical environment is today.

  6. G says:

    just off the top of my head; I’ll start with two of my favorite authors:
    Barbra Kingsolver and Octavia Butler. Anything by one of them.

    fav’s from them: Kingsolvers Poisonwood Bible, and Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

    and, if you are interested in graphic novels; Persepolis, Swallow Me Whole, and Blankets.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    What fun! Caroline, are you looking for feminist or spiritually-themed or just any books people might read during the summer?

    During the summer, I love a book that takes me to a completely different time a place. Some of my favorites are:
    Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is memoir about a woman growing up in Africa in the 1960’s and 70’s. It made me feel so much better about summering in Arizona (seriously, that was a summer I didn’t complain as much about it being 115 degrees), learned a little African history, and really enjoyed reading these flawed people doing their best.

    One Hundred Years of Solitude is an all-time favorite. The magical realism, Garcia Marquez’s ability to describe every taste and smell, even how the sun shines. And, it also centers around a crazy family. Hmmm…I think I see a theme here.

  8. Kmillecam says:

    I loved Anna Karenina, and Tess, and Jane Eyre, and TTW’s Refuge. I also have been extremely affected by From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson, and Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd.

    Oh, and one of my absolute favorites (I don’t know if I just read at the perfect time in my life or what) is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Amazing, beautiful, poignant.

    And now onto science fiction: absolutely adore Ender’s Game and Dune. I can reread both of those books every few years. And maybe Return of the King too.

    And now onto food philosophy: can’t live without Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. And Gut and Psychology Sundrome by Dr. Natascha Campbell-McBride. Between these two books and reading a LOT of real food blogs, I have been rebuilding my health for the past two years. It’s frankly amazing!

  9. Corktree says:

    “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman about an epileptic Hmong girl and her family in California, was a fascinating look at cultures colliding and it really broadened part of my worldview. I usually prefer fiction for my recreational reading, but this one convinced me that there is unparalleled value (and great writing!) in treating myself to this type of non fiction.

    I also love any and all of Chaim Potok’s books. They’ve given me not only an appreciation for various aspects of Jewish culture, but also a way to view and deal with elements of living that are common to all of us.

    • Dora says:

      Fadiman’s book is fabulous. Talk about getting lost in cultural translation. So many people trying to do the right thing for the little girl, and only getting in each other’s way.

  10. mel says:

    Excited to go find some of these suggestions! “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” was a griping account of individuals facing incredibly challenging circumstances.

    I liked “David O McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” because it provided historical context that was helpful in addressing some of the tensions I experience as a member of the church…and many of the stories were fascinating.

    Finally, “To Kill a Mockingbird” may be my all-time favorite. Discussion of race relations, gender roles, and family dynamics, along with a compelling story and unforgettable characters…I read it again every few years and it feels like catching up with old friends.

  11. I just finished (for my book group) David Benioff’s City of Thieves, set during the Siege of Leningrad. Definite page-turner, though perhaps too cinematic (he’s also a screenwriter and married to Amanda Peet; I’d be shocked if he doesn’t already have the screenplay done). I’m sticking with WWII to read (on my own) The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.

    Other good reads from my book group (which has been meeting 2-6 times a year for 9.5 years): Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Daughter’s Keeper by Ayelet Waldman, Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Three Junes by Julia Glass, The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, and March by Geraldine Brooks.

    Favorite book group nonfiction: Mother Nature by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy–seriously, a book that will really change the way you think and feel about mothering, in the global sense; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.

    I also read with all three of my children. With my oldest (10.5), we just finished The Hunger Games trilogy, and are going to tackle another Rick Riordan (he wrote Percy Jackson & the Olympians, which we read last year), The Last Hero, before (probably) starting on The Lord of the Rings. My youngest (3.5) is still into picture books, but with my kindergartener we’re making our way through the works of Roald Dahl (Matilda, James & the Giant Peach, the BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox), but we’re currently reading A Whole Nother Story by “Dr. Cuthbert Soup” before going back to Dahl for Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.

  12. Rachel says:

    Going through my Goodreads list, here are some of my 5 starred books:
    Brave New World
    The Wisdom of the Body: Discovering the Human Spirit
    The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
    The Monkey Wrench Gang
    The House of Mirth
    Angle of Repose
    The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
    The Handmaid’s Tale
    –Anything Wallace Stegner, Ayn Rand, or Zora Neale Hurston–
    If only people could stop writing for about 200 years to let me catch up–then again, I plan on spending most of my free time in eternity doing just that. 🙂
    If anyone is up for sharing the goodreads list I’d be interested in a swap
    [choriandchupke at yahoo]

  13. Jesse says:

    As a child I loved anything by LM Montgomery or Isaac Asimov. A bit eclectic, I know, and nothing has changed since then.

    My favorite book of all time: Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. It is beautifully written with themes of love and forgiveness and imperfection and what it means to be a parent

    A recent read with themes of acceptance: The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Creel

    Urban fantasy with a female lead: Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series

    Epic fantasy: The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss (this trilogy is waiting for the final installment. The second book got a bit bogged down, but the first was brilliant)

    Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty about friendship and choices (I also loved her book Bel Canto)

    Haven Kimmel’s The Solace of Leaving Early for gorgeous writing (I also loved her memoir Zippy, in which she told the story of her challenging childhood with gentle humor)

    Isabel Allende’s The HOuse of the Spirits really made me think about the myths we create about ourselves and our families (her other works have been more hit and miss for me–but I loved Paula about her daughter’s death)

    Riding the Bus With My Sister by Rachel Simon hit a nerve as well, possibly because both my husband and I have adult siblings with special needs–there is some tricky water to be tread with such siblings.

    My dad loved Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when he was in college. When I read it 30 years later, I liked it too. I liked the message that there are multiple paths to enlightenment–that we can find satisfaction and bliss wherever we are.

    For sheer gross-out and coolness factor there is Stiff by Mary Roach about what happens to cadavers (although I have not been as impressed by her other books)

    Scattershot by David Lovelace was another recent find. My mother loved it too. It details one man’s adventures with Bipolar Disorder–both his own and other members of his family. This book hit that same nerve as he captured so well some of the realities of life with this mental illness.

    And of course, as I have a 6-year-old there is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Love it. Contrary little Mary smacks around coddled Colin and all is well.

  14. Starfoxy says:

    I have the literary tastes of 9 year old, so I would say the Wizard of Oz books (there are 14 of them) are probably among the most feminist things I’ve ever read. Some are surprised by this because they’ve all seen movie- which is actually a terrible adaptation of the book.
    In the books Dorothy is a genuine farm girl. She gets things done, and doesn’t waste time being silly or helpless (unlike in the movie). For example, when Dorothy is caught by the witch, she defeats the witch by herself and then goes to rescue all of her traveling companions.
    The rest of the series goes on to have a wide variety of female characters, with genuine friendships between them.

  15. There aren’t a lot of books that I would read twice, but these books I loved and felt especially influenced by (sorry, I don’t feel like putting them all in italics):

    Carol Lynn Pearson’s Goodbye, I Love You, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, Quindlen’s One True Thing, Lewis’s Mere Christianity, ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold, Lowry’s The Giver, Brennert’s Moloka’i, and Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China.

    Interestingly enough, though I’ve read a lot of older books, I usually like the ones later than the 1890s the best. I believe hearing about different cultures and lifestyles is wonderful in every book, but the way a book is written and how much I can identify with the characters is what makes a book really earn my respect.

  16. Caroline says:

    Thank you, everyone! LOVE these recommendations.

    And let me throw out another couple. If you want a rip roaring page turner set in 1700’s America with a fabulous heroine, check out Sara Donati’s Into the Wilderness. (And there are 4 or 5 more in the series).

    I also loved The Illuminator by Brenda Hickman Vantrease. Set in 1300’s in England, it’s a mature love story about a widowed noblewoman and the bible illuminator she falls in love with. Lots of fascinating commentary on church and society, though a bit brutal at times (well, it’s the middle ages – can’t expect less).

    And let me second Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve read The Bean Trees a couple of times now, and I think it’s brilliant. A perfect book club book about an 18 year old that sets off to Arizona who adopts an abused baby Native American girl along the way.

  17. nat kelly says:

    What a great thread!

    To all the others mentioned above, I’ll add “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” for fiction. It’s just a beautiful coming-of-age story about a young woman. It is one of those books that you finish with a contented sigh, even though you feel like you’re saying goodbye to an old friend. Just beautiful.

    I feel like I’ve mentioned this on Exponent already, and probably everywhere else too, but the book that has most recently changed my world is “Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation” by Silvia Federici. Feminist Marxist historian talking about the shift from feudalism to capitalism, the witch hunt, the beginnings of colonialism, etc. I learned more from this book than any other book I’ve read in the last 6 years, and that includes my time in college. Simply, mind-blowingly incredible and important, and relevant to the modern world.

    Oh books. I could go on and on. I’m also up for any goodreads friends! I’d love to see what some of you Exponent people are reading. Here’s me:

  18. Aly S says:

    I’m a Bryson fan too, particularly A Walk in the Woods, which is about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I especially enjoyed reading that back-to-back with Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, which takes place in the Appalachian region as well. I loved the Brothers K by David James Duncan which is, in short, about baseball and religion. I am not at all a baseball fan, but really enjoyed the book. Some other great novels are Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger; Plainsong, by Kent Haruf (as well as every other book of his that I’ve read); and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, and its follow-up called Home. Lights on a Ground of Darkness is a lovely little memoir by the poet Ted Kooser that is a collection of beautifully written memories about his mother’s family.

  19. Dora says:

    I started reading the comments, and noticed that I wanted to comment on every one! I stopped myself after a bit, trying to show some self-control.

    I love books about the health care field. They are almost like detective stories. Another Day in the Frontal Lobe (Firlik). Every Patient Tells a Story (Sanders). Hospital Sketches (Alcott). Emperor of All Maladies (Mukherjee). Becoming a Doctor (Konnor). And all books by Gawande: Complications, Better, Checklist Manifesto.

    And Elizabeth Gaskill’s North and South has edged out Austen’s works. Just slightly. Talk about a twist on the typical hero story.

    Lots of children’s lit as well … Alcott, LM Montgomery, Rowling, Lewis, Ingalls Wilder, Gilbreth. Funny, redemptive and revealing.

    Wally Lamb’s work. His characters and plot lines are so well developed. Twisty and gritty. I always feel like the story actually lives. Aside from being a talented writer, he also he teaches writing to women in correctional facilities. I wonder if it acts as a sort of narrative therapy …

    The Bookseller of Kabul. I love how the writer blends in with the family, and is able to transcend the powerful gender divide.

    The Secret Lives of Bees. This book is like a safe haven for an LDS feminist to shelter in for a while.

  20. alex w. says:

    I don’t know where to start, so I guess I’ll just talk about what I’ve read recently.
    I completely fell in love with Fyodor Dostoevsky earlier this year while reading Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
    When I first started Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I got very excited because the language is absolutely beautiful. That woman could write!

  21. Stella says:

    I just finished _Bossypants_ by Tina Fey about two minutes ago. It made me laugh out loud.

    Books I say can change moment to moment as I am a Literature Lover (and major).

    _Girl with a Pearl Earring_ struck me from the beginning because I love Vermeer and Art.

    _The Journals of Sylvia Plath_ were amazing–the things she thought and wrote and created, adn then somehow reading them later in life when I am her age has been reflective for me.

    The first book I loved and have read yearly since is _Mrs. Mike_ by Benedict and Nancy Freeman. It’s a true story, told after interviewing the subject–who I found to be amazing.

    Just reread _Huckleberry Finn_ endlessly funny and poignant.

    I have _A Girl Named Zippy_ ready to read on my nightstand.

    One I just finished was _Women, Food, and God_ where Geneen Roth says that the way we eat is directly related to the way we feel about God. I thought that was pretty darn interesting.

    I could give a ten page list too. Just don’t try and read _Iberia_ even if you are going to Spain for the first time. It’s boring.

    • Corktree says:

      I tried to read Iberia before a trip to Spain – how does anyone make it through it?!

      • Stella says:

        Corktree! That cracks me up! I took it with me when I was backpacking through Spain my first time when I was 20 (oh, so long ago!). It weighed down my pack and I tried to read it on every train, but just couldn’t!

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