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Saturday, Dec 9, 2023

Niche Reads: Novels for Gender Studies Majors

If you struggle to find time for fun reading, this is the spot for you. Niche Reads recommends novels that relate to academic (or other) interests so you can explore a new book while still feeling productive. Check back each week for more cool books!

Are you interested in gender studies or the effects of inflexible gender norms? Then you’re in the right place. These three books place gender on the forefront, taking different approaches to expose the consequences of sexism for people of all genders. They all offer interesting historical perspectives, from Victorian feminism to the gender norms of Glasgow in the 1980s.

“The Odd Women” by George Gissing

This often-overlooked Victorian novel follows the lives of five “odd women” — unmarried and struggling to support themselves with limited financial opportunities. As the women try to develop career skills, they also must navigate the complex and threatening world of romantic advances from men.

When writing “The Odd Women,” Gissing took inspiration from his two unmarried sisters, writing his protagonists with uncanny compassion and depth. Rather than focusing on the glamorous side of Victorian society that seems to be the dominant surviving narrative in media culture today, this novel skillfully and honestly explores the lives of average people. As such, it is easier to connect with than other novels from the time period that you may have read.

Beyond the fascinating insights into 19th-century feminism, the plot itself is scintillating and at times shocking. This is a novel that will stick with you, deftly combining lighthearted romance and strong female characters with haunting descriptions of the realities that they faced.

You should read this book if you like Victorian literature, if you’re drawn to stories that focus on average people or if you are looking for a book with many twists and turns.

“Inland” by Téa Obreht

In the Arizona territory in 1893, tormented by drought, the men in Nora’s family have vanished. Her husband, in search of water, has been gone for weeks, while her two older sons have mysteriously disappeared. Left to tend to her home and younger son alone, she faces threats from the environment, her community and the monster her son claims is roaming the land. At the same time, an outlaw named Lurie travels through the countryside, plagued by ghosts and their all-consuming “wants.”

In “Inland,” Obreht masterfully interweaves two seemingly unconnected stories, but the beating heart of the novel is Nora, a hardened frontier woman. Following her over a perilous few days, the novel examines themes of motherhood, loss and sacrifice.

With its beautiful prose and fascinating setting, “Inland” explores the life of a woman unsupported by men. The whole novel is underscored by the ominous depletion of Nora’s water supply, a constant reminder of the danger posed by the people and the land surrounding her. This novel is understated and elegant, with an expertly crafted and unpredictable story.

You should read this book if you like novels that center around a strong sense of place, if you are interested in historical fiction or if you are drawn to lyrical prose.

“Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart

The only book on this list that features a male protagonist, “Shuggie Bain” is the story of a young boy’s coming-of-age in 1980s Glasgow. Raised in poverty by his mother, Agnes, a beautiful but unstable woman, Shuggie grapples with his sexuality while Agnes, confronted with her own fading glamor, sinks into alcoholism.

Shuggie and Agnes’s relationship is the centerpiece of the novel, and it is both tender and destructive. However, sexuality is also a major theme, along with Shuggie’s inability to be a “normal boy.” This heartbreaking story shows the fallout of a sweet, sensitive boy growing up in a society with rigid expectations and the failures of the adults in his life to help him.

Like “Inland,” “Shuggie Bain” is remarkable for its setting: a vivid account of public housing in Glasgow, informed by Stuart’s own childhood.

You should read this book if you’re looking for a bildungsroman, if you’re interested in epic character studies or if you don’t mind a tearjerker.

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