Buy Your Dad One of These Books by Women for Father’s Day
No matter what kind of dad (or dad analogue) you have, you can find a female author to suit his tastes
Until a few years ago, the books I bought my dad for Father’s Day were always by male authors, featuring male protagonists. The ratio of books I gifted him to books he enjoyed was high. Ragtime, Dr. Copernicus, We Are Not Ourselves, The Quiet American: he loved these male-authored books, whereas he hadn’t comparably loved the books by women he’d tried. This was partly my fault. Dad’s a feminist, but I was dragging him into the trap of selection bias.
After realizing that I’d been unconsciously recommending male-authored books to my male students, while female students got a more even-handed mix, I decided to consciously change my book recommendation process. The reason my dad didn’t love books by women — it occurred to me — was partly because I’d been hand-picking books by men for him, knowing what he’d go for, and partly because when he’d tried reading books by women, they’d been Mum’s books, which simply weren’t to his tastes. When it came to finding the right books by women, he didn’t know where to start. Male-authored books are marketed neutrally, whereas books by women are packaged as if they’re for women only, even if only subtly so. This is particularly true for fiction. My dad wouldn’t have bought my own book, because of its cover.
Last year, in the interest of exposing Dad to books by women, I bought him Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets and Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. Though he was initially taken aback — two women authors? — he’d also come to understand that some books that might appear to be meant for a different audience could actually be right up his alley.
Maybe your dad (or whatever other person you buy gifts for on Father’s Day) is ready for the same discovery.
I’ve compiled 30 books authored by women — 15 fiction, 15 non-fiction — to appeal to dads of all literary predilections. By offering a long list, I hope to have included at least one good choice for your father, for Father’s Day. Inevitably, this list is informed by my own tastes (the fiction choices betray my love of humorous or wry writing with rich, complex societal portraiture undercut with poetry … sorry but all tastes are idiosyncratic!), but I am almost certain that all of these are excellent books. Here’s hoping they convert your fathers and father figures into lifelong readers of books by women.
For emotionally intelligent dads, or dads who want to be: Zadie Smith, On Beauty
A gorgeous family saga involving an American one-time-activist and a British Rembrandt scholar who doesn’t rate Rembrandt, 30 years into a troubled marriage. Their passionate, intelligent, compelling children demand more optimism and authenticity than their parents can provide. The book asks significant philosophical and practical questions. Both personal and political, funny and wise.
For dads against toxic masculinity: A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven
For fans of offbeat characters and comedic writing, this is a darkly comic (hilarious) story following two dysfunctional brothers in modern America — a Nixon scholar and a has-it-all T.V. executive — about aspirations worthy and unworthy, the reality of a seemingly covetable life, the violent potential of masculinity, and the unpredictable ways people can respond to upheaval.
For dads who wonder about retiring to Florida: Lauren Groff, Florida
New York Times-bestselling author of Fates & Furies (one of Obama’s books of the year), Groff has outdone herself in this collection of short stories, all set in storm-beleaguered, snake-riddled, sinkhole-prone, hot-and-bothered Florida, from the domestic to the wild, spanning centuries. These stories are so good: well-written, immersive, affecting, moody, precise, captivating.
For dads confused about cultural appropriation: Nell Zink, Mislaid
One of the funniest, sharpest books I’ve read. A white woman flees her marriage and moves to a village in Virginia, where she passes herself and her pale, fair-haired daughter off as black. The novel spans many years, following the characters as they squat in a house in an African American settlement before moving to a housing project, through to when the daughter lands a minority scholarship at the University of Virginia. The finale of this book is riveting, side-splitting, and sublime.
For historical fiction and murder mystery fan dads: Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Set in 1843, this novel follows Grace Marks as she serves a life sentence for the murders of her employer, his housekeeper, and his mistress. Spiritualists who believe her to have been mentally ill seek a pardon for Grace, and a doctor tries to unlock her memories of that day. Written in Southern Ontario Gothic style, Atwood highlights the social ills of the time; the corruption and moral hypocrisy of the upper class.
For dads who love James Joyce and/or modernism: Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
This multi-award-winning novel revitalizes the form; situating the reader inside a young woman’s mind, as she navigates a world bereaved of her brother. It’s a challenging read, but a few pages in, your vision adjusts to the shuddering, devouring dark, and you see something new.
For geek dads, philosophers, and horror-happy dads: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly was a genius. She started writing this Gothic thriller at the age of eighteen. It is arguably the first ever work of science fiction, exploring the dangers of science, the origins and nature of life, the role of human beings within the universe. It is as relevant now as ever (especially in light of illegal genome editing experiments)!
For dads interested in New Zealand, and dark, dense, difficult rewarding fiction: Keri Hume, The Bone People
With this haunting, mesmerizing, myth-rich, culture-dizzy novel, Hulme was the first New Zealander to win the Man Booker Prize. It encapsulates complex Kiwi landscapes, the luxury and oppression of isolation, the postcolonial stamp bearing the bust of a monarch few care to name or recognize; national identities and pathologies — shoulder to shoulder, and even nose to nose, but far from hand in hand. More prescient now than ever, as we grapple with patriotism, tradition, co-existence, and tolerance.
For dork dads with a sense of humor and social justice: Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People
This debut collection of short stories is characterized by a refreshing, dorky (yet dark) sense of humor — at times satirical — and intelligence. The author presents lives/moments/interactions you haven’t seen in fiction before, delving into black citizenship, social mobility, and contemporary American life.
For dads with feelings: Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
Moore’s work is characterized by wry humor, a humane worldview, and an astonishing gift for observation and portraiture (of character, place, relationships, society). These twelve short stories will blow you away, in their range, their emotional force, their wit and wisdom. If you’re not convinced, there’s a story called “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”—the best title ever.
For dads seeking a bracing meditation on life and love: Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
For a book so slim, this is hugely satisfying. The thin plot centers on the fallout of infidelity, but the book — written in sculpted vignettes — is all jaw-dropping, conscience-shaking, allusion-rich ruminations on intimacy, loyalty, stalled ambitions, art’s seduction, self-destruction, heartache and what we owe our loved ones. “Cool precision,” says the publisher, and that is exactly right. It does shimmer with rage, wit, intelligence, and fierce longing.
For wild-west dads: Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn
Hard to believe this multi-award-winning short story collection is written by one person, such is its range and scope. Myth sings in the American West of these stories (in the vein of Cormac McCarthy); their effortless social observation and wisdom is reminiscent of Annie Proulx and Richard Ford; their humor and custom, of Denis Johnson. From Gold Rush ghost towns to desert brothels, this collection is expansive.
For dads into politics and historical writing at the top of its game: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
At 653 pages, this Man Booker-winning historical novel about 1520s England is a bottomless feast for history aficionados. Set during a perilous moment for England — when King Henry VIII may die without a male heir, sending the country into civil war — the story centers on Thomas Cromwell: a savvy politician, a charmer, and an ambitious opportunist.
For psychology, anthropology, and sci-fi fan dads: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
This classic, groundbreaking, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning work of science fiction, we journey with an emissary to Winter — a world where inhabitants can choose and change their gender at will. The emissary’s goal is to include Winter in a growing intergalactic civilization, but to do so, he must come to understand and respect the utterly different culture he encounters there.
For dads who love Steinbeck: Hillary Jordan, Mudbound
Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, this slim novel is set in 1946 on a Mississippi Delta farm. It’s a subtle and highly engaging depiction of rural tensions in the Jim Crow South, when soldiers have returned from the war to work the land. I’ve gifted this book many times, and it always begets strong feelings in the recipient.
For dads wanting to take a hard look at our political history: Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
For those interested in 20th century political history, this 1950s text is the definitive work on the rise of colonial imperialism, totalitarianism, and anti-Semitism in central and western Europe in the 1800s. Arendt explores the institutions and operations of totalitarian movements; eerily exposing how the use of terror, isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination.
For David Attenborough-fan dads: Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Using case studies aplenty, New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert takes the reader on a journey over the last half-billion years, from species to species, surveying each one’s extinction. Take a guess which species the sixth extinction might be reserved for. Frank, entertaining, moving, superbly informative, this is a paragon of interdisciplinary writing.
For cerebral dads interested in love and the body: Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
A philosophy book disguised as a memoir, this meditation on desire, identity, queer family-making, the limitations and possibilities of love, gender and language floored me. It is astonishingly wise and generous and insightful. It’s dense and the subject matter is difficult.
For dads who quote Heidegger at the dinner table: Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
This book tells the story of modern existentialism, in an enjoyable, accessible way. From the ‘king and queen of existentialism’–Sartre and de Beauvoir–to their wider circle, including Camus, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Murdoch, Bakewell weaves biography and thought, framing the philosophical ponderings about what we are and how we are to live.
For cool, interested, open-minded dads: Ashleigh Young, Can You Tolerate This?
New Zealander Ashleigh Young has broken through internationally with a book of personal essays. This never happens. Essays rarely make people famous. This is a roaming, wry, raw, poignant collection of thoughts on what is tolerable, fair and possible in this life.
For highbrow dads: Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind
This is an extremely brainy book — intellectual (to the point of academic) in tone, approach, and rigor — and it is a tome. A collection of essays on art, feminism, neuroscience, genetics, psychology, philosophy, the human condition, and all that jazz. I don’t remember if jazz gets distilled here, but probably. Hustvedt is confusingly broadly informed and interested. She builds bridges between the sciences and the humanities, because she knows engineering too. Why not.
For mansplaining-apologist dads: Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
Solnit’s famous title essay is housed here with six other comic, scathing, shocking, revealing, galling terrifying, depressing, mystifying, original takes on misogyny, marriage equality, violence against women and girls, and more. Solnit somehow manages to crack many a laugh amid all this seriousness.
For dads interested in addiction: Erica Garza, Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction
An unflinching account of sex and porn addiction. Garza reveals how her addiction developed and took over; how she fled from one side of the world to the other to break free of it―from East Los Angeles to Hawaii to the brothels of Bangkok and the yoga studios of Bali. Garza narrates her experiences with therapy, twelve-step programs, rehab and the prospect of marriage.
For dads into education: Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir
A riveting memoir about a young woman who leaves her survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho and, though seventeen before she ever set foot in a classroom, goes on to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. (Doctors had been forbidden in her youth, but that didn’t stop her from becoming one!) A book about the struggle for self-invention, self-belief, and seeing one’s history anew.
For woke dads: Franchesca Ramsey, Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist
Video blogger and star of MTV’s Decoded, Franchesca Ramsey explores race, online activism and communication in the age of social media rants, trolls and call-out wars. Her video “What White Girls Say. . . to Black Girls” reached twelve million views, likely because Ramsey discusses American injustices in an approachable, constructive way.
For venturesome, city-loving dads: Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London
Cultural critic Lauren Elkin explores the notion of the “flâneur” (“one who wanders aimlessly” — a figure who was historically assumed to be a man), celebrating women who navigated urban spaces on foot — inherently a political act.
For environmentalist, progressive dads: Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything
A rigorous and compelling examination of how climate change is changing and will change every aspect of our cultures, societies, and environments. Worthily, an international bestseller. (An alternative, if you dad read and loved this, is Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by Gaia Vince.)
For dads into business, finance, organizations, and anthropology: Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers
Award-winning journalist, anthropologist and senior editor of the Financial Times on our tendency to create functional departments — silos — that hinder our work, our ability to innovate and to react to risks and opportunities.
For dads up for a spiritual, cultural, and intellectual challenge: Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy: A Memoir
An intelligent, unconventional, funny, prose-perfect memoir about religion, gender norms, class issues and the author’s relationship with her highly unusual, religious family.
For nerd dads who joke about your “ripped genes”: Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance
In the age of the Human Genome Project having successfully sequenced human DNA, the question of where-to / what-next is ubiquitous. If you don’t already know how stupidly, improbably fascinating the gene and epigenetics (the fastest-moving field in biology) is, then you need to read this book, and if you do already know, you’ll discover new (worrisome) wonders here.
About the Author
Caoilinn Hughes’s debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp, will be published on July 10th with Hogarth (U.S.). It has just been released in the U.K., where the Sunday Times described it as “a highly ambitious fiction debut [that] contains multitudes.” Irish-born Hughes is also a prize-winning poet. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Tin House, POETRY, and elsewhere.