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Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

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Sophia Benoit is a writer and comedian who writes for GQ, AllureRefinery29The Cut and her own advice newsletter Here’s The Thing where she tries to get everyone to ask their crush out. Sophia lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend Dave. Her first book, Well, This Is Exhausting, is available now from Simon & Schuster.

When I was younger, people always told me that the reason they loved to read was that books took them to new and different worlds. I never connected with that. I think it’s because I was a little bit too literal as a child; I assumed they were talking about fantasy worlds like Westeros or Middle-earth or Arkham. I was not a fantasy reader and thus I found this reasoning unrelatable. What I liked to read about was this world. I loved—love—reading about people in the real world, in my world. When I first started reading as an adult post-college, I was drawn to nonfiction and most specifically to memoirs by women—if I’m being fanciful, I might say I was looking to be taught all the possible ways of being alive, of being a woman.

The books below are not all memoirs—I’ve expanded my horizons over the years—but they are books by women who taught me something, gave me something. Many are books that felt like talking with a friend, some are heavy with serious themes, some span the universe, and others span the bedroom. These books helped shape how I read and how I think; they invited me to see how another person views life, and that is ultimately what I wanted to do with my own book, Well, This Is Exhausting. I simply wanted to invite people in. Also, of course, I now understand that these varied experiences of being alive are each “new and different worlds.”

Assata
by Assata Shakur

About five years ago, I decided that I wanted to read a minimum of fifty books a year, cover to cover. This was the first book I read the first year of my self-imposed reading challenge, and it is still, over three hundred books later, my favorite. Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army, alternates chapters between telling the story of her arrest and trial for her alleged involvement in the killing of a state trooper and stories from her childhood that led her into activism, the two narratives meeting at the end of the book. Her stories are alternately harrowing and funny and sweet and heartbreaking, and for me, no autobiography can ever match up to this. If I could magically make everyone read one book, this would be my choice, without hesitation.

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Assata
Assata Shakur

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Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

By Sophia Benoit | July 9, 2021

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I Miss You When I Blink
by Mary Laura Philpott

I am absolutely, possibly unreasonably, terrified of losing myself as I age, of forgetting who I am. I think it’s very common, especially if you have children or a career you throw yourself into, to become a little detached from the person you thought or hoped you’d be. I am desperate to do everything in my life, to maximize my time here on earth, which is why, perhaps, I’m anxious about aging. Aging means making decisions, picking a track. Mary Laura Philpott wrote I MISS YOU WHEN I BLINK precisely to address my concerns. Okay, no she didn’t, but I adored reading this book from a smart, capable, introspective woman with children and a career who felt utterly lost. And I loved reading how she coped with it. This book gave me a lot of hope for my own future, which is just such an underrated gift.

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I Miss You When I Blink
Mary Laura Philpott

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

A charmingly relatable and wise memoir-in-essays by acclaimed writer and bookseller Mary Laura Philpott, the modern day reincarnation ofNora Ephron, Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr, and Laurie Colwinall rolled into one (The Washington Post), about what happened after she checked off all the boxes on a successful lifes to-do list and realized she might need to reinvent the list—and herself.

Mary Laura Philpott thought she’d cracked the code: Always be right, and you’ll always be happy.

But once she’d completed her life’s to-do list (job, spouse, house, babies—check!), she found that instead of feeling content and successful, she felt anxious. Lost. Stuck in a daily grind of overflowing calendars, grueling small talk, and sprawling traffic. She’d done everything “right” but still felt all wrong. What’s the worse failure, she wondered: smiling and staying the course, or blowing it all up and running away? And are those the only options?

Taking on the conflicting pressures of modern adulthood, Philpott provides a “frank and funny look at what happens when, in the midst of a tidy life, there occur impossible-to-ignore tugs toward creativity, meaning, and the possibility of something more” (Southern Living). She offers up her own stories to show that identity crises don’t happen just once or only at midlife and reassures us that small, recurring personal re-inventions are both normal and necessary. Most of all, in this “warm embrace of a life lived imperfectly” (Esquire), Philpott shows that when you stop feeling satisfied with your life, you don’t have to burn it all down. You can call upon your many selves to figure out who you are, who you’re not, and where you belong. Who among us isn’t trying to do that?

“Be forewarned that you’ll laugh out loud and cry, probably in the same essay. Philpott has a wonderful way of finding humor, even in darker moments. This is a book you’ll want to buy for yourself and every other woman you know” (Real Simple).

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Thick
by Tressie McMillan Cottom

I’m going to cheat here a little and tell you that on top of the book THICK, which I will get to in one second, you also absolutely must read Dr. McMillan Cottom’s essay on Dolly Parton titled “The Dolly Moment.” Okay, now that you’re done with that, you’re undoubtedly looking to read literally anything else she’s written, and I have great news: THICK. Like the Dolly essay, THICK holds a mirror up to American society and looks closely at what is reflected; the book of essays covers cultural touchstones as varied as Miley Cyrus, Trump rallies, capitalism, white hegemony in beauty standards, healthcare for Black women, Twitter replies, and McMillan Cottom’s mother The Vivian.

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Thick
Tressie McMillan Cottom

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Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

By Sophia Benoit | July 9, 2021

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Shrill
by Lindy West

Every single essay of this hilarious book made me feel like someone was writing a book for me. SHRILL is about being perceived as too loud, too opinionated, and too fat, all of which were (and often still are) major formative concerns of mine. Here is a brilliant, brilliant writer taking my fears and my beliefs and my insecurities and setting them to riotously funny and emotionally resonant stories. I have read and reread this book so many times, and each time a new section means something more to me. And I will always, always think of West describing having her hair up in a ponytail as looking like a “tennis ball on top of a minifridge.”

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Shrill
Lindy West

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Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

By Sophia Benoit | July 9, 2021

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The End of Everything
by Katie Mack

My father and I have this little pen-palish thing going on where we send books back and forth to each other, sometimes with a note or an explanation or a theme, often without. I sent this book to him because he studied astronomy in college—he was in college or grad school for almost thirteen years, and he studied almost everything—and I couldn’t stop thinking about the book, so I bought it for myself too. This book is astounding; I won’t lie to you and say it doesn’t take a little bit of effort to read—before picking up Mack’s book, the last time I did any reading that involved physics was about a decade ago—but that effort is so rewarded. Katie Mack gifts readers with the luxury of theory, the present of wondering about things just for the sake of wondering. This might be the most literal entry in the books that changed how I think about the world, but on a deeper level, I loved reading about science as an adult. I loved the reminder, via both the universe and Mack’s writing, that we are rather small and insignificant in the scheme of things—which I feel makes it all so much more miraculous that we’re here.

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The End of Everything
Katie Mack

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2020
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY * THE WASHINGTON POST * THE ECONOMIST * NEW SCIENTIST * PUBLISHERS WEEKLY * THE GUARDIAN

From one of the most dynamic rising stars in astrophysics, an “engrossing, elegant” (The New York Times) look at five ways the universe could end, and the mind-blowing lessons each scenario reveals about the most important concepts in cosmology.

We know the universe had a beginning. With the Big Bang, it expanded from a state of unimaginable density to an all-encompassing cosmic fireball to a simmering fluid of matter and energy, laying down the seeds for everything from black holes to one rocky planet orbiting a star near the edge of a spiral galaxy that happened to develop life as we know it. But what happens to the universe at the end of the story? And what does it mean for us now?

Dr. Katie Mack has been contemplating these questions since she was a young student, when her astronomy professor informed her the universe could end at any moment, in an instant. This revelation set her on the path toward theoretical astrophysics. Now, with lively wit and humor, she takes us on a mind-bending tour through five of the cosmos’s possible finales: the Big Crunch, Heat Death, the Big Rip, Vacuum Decay (the one that could happen at any moment!), and the Bounce. Guiding us through cutting-edge science and major concepts in quantum mechanics, cosmology, string theory, and much more, The End of Everything is a wildly fun, surprisingly upbeat ride to the farthest reaches of all that we know.

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A Border Passage
by Leila Ahmed

My freshman year of college, I took a class titled “Women in Revolutions in the Middle East,” and this book was required reading. If I’m remembering correctly, this was the first nonfiction book I was ever assigned to read that was written by a woman. It was certainly the first memoir by a woman I was required to read, and it is perhaps what made me fall in love with memoirs as a genre—the exploration of identity, watching the slow process of a writer learning to become herself, of discovering who she is. I don’t know a better way to learn about the world than to read people recounting how life is or was for them.

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A Border Passage
Leila Ahmed

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All You Can Ever Know
by Nicole Chung

This book changed the way I think about adoption, challenged the assumptions I’ve made about it, and sent me on a journey to read more from adult transracial adoptees. ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW is a gorgeous exploration of the complexities of family, how race and culture shape us all, and the routes we all take to figure out who we are. I am a complete sucker for books about family and the ways in which each member of a family can hold a separate truth, and Nicole Chung’s book covers this beautifully.

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All You Can Ever Know
Nicole Chung

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MENTIONED IN:

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Blow Your House Down
by Gina Frangello

I am, I’m sorry to say, utterly fascinated by adultery. I am riveted by affairs—the why, the how, the excitement, the comedown, the reveal, the reaction of those around us, the moral lines we don’t expect to cross. Most writing on cheating deals in the hypothetical, the fictional. It’s somewhat rare to read testimony from inside a real-life affair. Gina Frangello lays her shit bare; she is so willing to share herself, to scoop her guts out and put them on the page—which is, of course, what a good memoir should be, but which is very difficult to actually do without flinching. My God, it’s triumphant.

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Blow Your House Down
Gina Frangello

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Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

By Sophia Benoit | July 9, 2021

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The State of Affairs
by Esther Perel

Yes, I know I just admitted to my affinity for reading about infidelity, but I also genuinely believe that every person who is in a romantic relationship or who wants to ever be in one can benefit from the wisdom of Esther Perel. She is positively unmatched in the arena of relationships. Not only do I recommend this book and her other book, MATING IN CAPTIVITY, but I also love her podcast Where Should We Begin? where you can just listen in to her couples therapy sessions. Perel is fabulous at working backwards from people’s actions to figure out what they’re actually searching for. She’s marvelous at being both empathetic and sympathetic to people, even when they do wrong. Please, just read everything she writes!

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The State of Affairs
Esther Perel

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Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

By Sophia Benoit | July 9, 2021

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Come As You Are: Revised and Updated
by Emily Nagoski

I write about sex for a living and have for five years now. I have said just about every single dirty word you can imagine in a professional setting. I read a lot about sex. I did not, therefore, expect to learn much from this book. And boy oh boy was I wrong! Recently I was at a café with a friend and my boyfriend, where they were working, and I was reading this book, and every few pages I brought their productivity to a screeching halt to share sex ed updates that floored me. Like, why didn’t I know that “if a hymen tears or bruises, it heals?” Or that hymens don’t actually bleed when they break? Or that platypuses just leak milk from their bellies? (Okay, the last detail isn’t as relevant to human sex.) And this is just in the first fifty pages! Everyone—everyone—should read this book.

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Come As You Are: Revised and Updated
Emily Nagoski

A revised and updated edition of Emily Nagoski’s game-changing New York Times bestseller Come As You Are, featuring new information and research on mindfulness, desire, and pleasure that will radically transform your sex life.

For much of the 20th and 21st centuries, women’s sexuality was an uncharted territory in science, studied far less frequently—and far less seriously—than its male counterpart.

That is, until Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, which used groundbreaking science and research to prove that the most important factor in creating and sustaining a sex life filled with confidence and joy is not what the parts are or how they’re organized but how you feel about them. In the years since the book’s initial publication, countless women have learned through Nagoski’s accessible and informative guide that things like stress, mood, trust, and body image are not peripheral factors in a woman’s sexual wellbeing; they are central to it—and that even if you don’t always feel like it, you are already sexually whole by just being yourself. This revised and updated edition continues that mission with new information and advanced research, demystifying and decoding the science of sex so that everyone can create a better sex life and discover more pleasure than you ever thought possible.

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Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

By Sophia Benoit | July 9, 2021

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I Feel Bad About My Neck
by Nora Ephron

Look, we weren’t going to make it through this list without Nora. You cannot possibly go wrong with almost any of her writing, whether it be on cholesterol, red coats, or Arubas, but this collection in particular shines. I so clearly remember this book on my mother’s nightstand when I was growing up, and after I read it for the first time at age nineteen, I understood why my mother kept it close at hand. This book feels like having lunch with your favorite, fabulous, hilarious aunt. Nora is unmatched in cracking open her life and the lives of those around her with clever observations. It is beyond clichéd for an essay writer to point to Ephron as foundational, but she showed me (and everyone) that the genre could be as quippy and fun as it is important.

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I Feel Bad About My Neck
Nora Ephron

In the last few years of her life, Nora reclaimed her literary crown with this collection, which openly discussed what it meant to be a woman who was getting older and experiencing change. Through ups, downs, and unexpected truths, she kept us laughing.

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MENTIONED IN:

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By Kerry Fiallo | October 8, 2021

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Well, This Is Exhausting
by Sophia Benoit

WELL, THIS IS EXHAUSTING comes out on July 13!

Like so many women, Sophia Benoit spent her formative years struggling to do the “right” thing—to make others comfortable, to take minimal and calculated risks, to live up to society’s expectations—only to realize that there was so little payoff to this tiresome balancing act.

Now, in WELL, THIS IS EXHAUSTING, she shares her journey from aspiring good girl to proud feminist, and addresses the constantly shifting goalposts of what exactly it means to be “good” in today’s world. Including topics as varied and laugh-out-loud funny as how to be the life of the party (even when you have crippling anxiety), navigating the disappointments of the dating world, and why no one should judge you for having an encyclopedic knowledge of reality TV stars, these essays are sure to move, motivate, and charm you.

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Well, This Is Exhausting
Sophia Benoit

From GQ columnist and Twitter sensation, this hilarious, clever, and eye-opening memoir-in-essays explores the ins and outs of modern womanhood—from finding feminism, the power of pop culture, and how to navigate life’s constant double standards—perfect for fans of Shrill and PEN15.

Like so many women, Benoit spent her formative years struggling to do the “right” thing—to make others comfortable, to take minimal and calculated risks, to live up to society’s expectations—only to realize that there was so little payoff to this tiresome balancing act.

Now, in Well, This Is Exhausting, she shares her journey from aspiring good girl to proud feminist, and addresses the constantly shifting goalposts of what exactly it means to be “good” in today’s world. Including topics as varied and laugh-out-loud funny as how to be the life of the party (even when you have crippling anxiety), navigating the disappointments of the dating world, and why no one should judge you for having an encyclopedic knowledge of reality TV stars, these essays are sure to move, motivate, and charm you.

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MENTIONED IN:

Author Picks: 11 Female Writers Who Taught Me About the World

By Sophia Benoit | July 9, 2021

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