1. The Handmaid's Tale-Margaret Atwood
This book is incredibly intellectual while still being accessible. Atwood takes the idea of women as chattel to its not entirely unbelievable extreme. A great way for new readers of feminist fiction to get into the genre. Love everything Atwood ever wrote, but this one inspired me the most.
2. Stone Butch Blues-Leslie Feinberg
I know that most people have probably never heard of this book or this author, Leslie Feinberg, but ze is one of the most influential writers in the world of GLBT literature, specifically around issues of gender identity. The "ze" label is deliberate-Feinberg rejects traditional definitions of gender in favor of a more global perspective on what it means to be human, regardless of the genitalia you happen to have been born with. In this, per first novel, ze tells the story (mostly autobiographical) of coming up as a young butch lesbian in the 60s, pre-Stonewall. Great, touching, moving read!
3. Paradise-Toni Morrison
I firmly believe that this is her best book, despite the number of people who seem to think that Beloved takes that prize. I love the way that time is fluid and non-linear in so many of her books, and the juxtaposition of the nuns and the village in this one makes fr fascinating reading.
4. Stranger in a Strange Land-Robert Heinlein
This book takes every idea about love and sex and culture and turns it on its head. Even if you are not a fan of science fiction this one is sure to give you something to think about.
5. A Thousand Splendid Suns-Khaled Hosseini
Anyone wanting to understand Afghanistan, and why it shouldn't have taken 9-11 for the US to do something about the Taliban, should read this book. Heartbreakingly written, intimate and tragic, this book is one of the best I have read-ever.
6. Savage Inequalities-Jonathan Kozol
I'm not usually a huge fan of non-fiction, but Jonathan Kozol's work is powerful. This book is about the inequalities that exist in America's schools, and he examines the racial and socioeconomic politics that leads them to be the way they are. He makes a strong argument that until we address these inequities we will continue to have generational poverty, racism, and class warfare in our country.
7. The Time Traveller's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
This is one of the most moving love stories I have ever read, and one of the best written books I have seen in a long time. The plot is so complex and ingeniously structured...it's not often that an author can completely surprise me with something new, but Niffenegger did it.
8. Possessing the Secret of Joy-Alice Walker
Walker takes a minor character from The Color Purple (arguably another book everyone should read), and creates a story around her that examines what it means to break taboos. While the main topic of this novel, female genital mutilation, is clearly not the most uplifting subject, the way that the book examines the practice and the main character's decision to undergo the process is powerful and moving.
9. The Giver-Lois Lowry
This may be a young adult novel, but the there is enough here for the most intellectual adult reader to chew on. Science fiction that doesn't feel like science fiction, with an ending that leaves you wondering (at least, until you read the sequel)
10. Prodigal Summer-Barbara Kingsolver
Beautifully written, this novel explores the idea that humans, rather than being above nature, are in fact undeniably a part of the rhythms and cycles of the world, driven as much by biological forces as rational. Kingsolver's explorations of the place of body and heart in our lives is full of stunning descriptions of the natural world and tons of emotion. The book is unashamedly a treatise on treating the natural world with respect and reverence, but the environmentalism never becomes preachy or cliche.