Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

heroineHow to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis

London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Was there ever a book so meant for me to read?  It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and wanted to get right to the computer to write about it, but this book gave me that wonderful sense of urgency.  I must spread the word.  Others must know how wonderful this book is. 

I heard Samantha Ellis read from and discuss her book on The Guardian books podcast.  I ordered the book right away, but had to wait for its publication date in Canada.  It arrived this week.  I devoured it in a day.

Ellis begins the book on the Yorkshire moors, with her best friend Emma, and they are arguing about who they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.  (Emma and I agree; Jane Eyre, of course.)  Ellis is adamant that Cathy Earnshaw is the heroine for her.  Emma has made her think, though, that she should revisit the question.

…. when we reached Top Withins, the skies cleared.  The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation.  Which it was.  I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

As we leaned against the warm stone, basking–actually basking–in the sun, drinking flasks of tea, I wondered why I’d written Jane off.  She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself.  And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married.  The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational.  It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning.  And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs. …

I decided that when I got back to London, I would dig out my copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and read them again, with more scrutiny and less sentiment.  I would find out how I really felt about Cathy and Jane.  But maybe that wouldn’t be the end of it.  After all, if I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?

And so begins 18 months of re-reading and writing about all of her favourite books and heroines.   Ellis begins with fairy tales and works her way through children’s books, racy reads, “the classics” and classics of first and second wave feminism; from The Little Mermaid, to Anne of Green Gables, from Lizzy Bennet and Flora Poste, from Esther Greenwood to Lucy Honeychurch.  She revisits, among many others, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.  Having read and relied on these books and their heroines to shape her growing self, who, she asks, is the heroine she needs today.

The title is a nod to Louis May Alcott’s “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” and this idea of reading spoiling not just one’s eyes and brain, but marriage prospects too, comes up often in the book.  As an Iraqi Jew, whose parents fled to England as refugees, the marriage plot features heavily in Ellis’s own life.  Her parents want her to settle down with a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, but Ellis chafes against the marriage plot both in life and in literature.  She wants adventure, independence, a model for a writing life.  Ellis herself is a playwright, and a huge appeal of her book is that she traces the fates of women writing in fiction.

There is a perfect balance of autobiographical material and discussion of the books on hand.  Ellis is not just well read, she has a genuine desire to right by books and their authors.  She is a generous reader, but totally unafraid of calling herself out or her beloved writers out for failing their own heroines.  I loved her arguments with her younger self and with the authors who let their women writers sacrifice writing to marriage and children.

I loved every minute of reading this book.  It went too quickly.  I gobbled, as I often do, but this book sent me back for seconds, it sent me to my own bookshelves to pull down my own copies of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, The Bloody Chamber, To the Lighthouse, I Capture the Castle, and and and.  It also sent me looking for books I haven’t yet read: Lolly Willowes and South Riding.  It did, in other words, what all great books about books should do: it gave me the pleasure of revisiting old favourites and the joy of anticipating new reads.

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This week’s fairy tale in our house is “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”  (Each week, we borrow several versions of the same fairy tale from the library and compare tellings and illustrations.)  There weren’t many copies of this one on the shelves, but for some reason it spoke to me and we brought it home.  As I read it to the kids, I realized it would make a great selection for my planned Christmas Book Advent Calendar, so I hopped on the computer to buy one.  (In spite of a book-buying hiatus.  It’s been one week.  At least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes, at least it’s not shoes….)

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but SHOES.  Specifically, Manolo Blahnik shoes.

Manolo Blahnik and the Elves and the Shoemaker by Camilla Morton.

It is part of a new series of fairy tales: Fashion Fairy Tale Memoirs.  From Harper Collins:

Each book in this inspired series from fashion writer Camilla Morton inventively reimagines one of our favorite “Once Upon a Time” stories, blending with it the real-life story of a famed fashion designer. Lushly illustrated by the designers themselves, these tales illuminate each iconic individual’s creative magic while celebrating his unique life and career. The result is an intriguing combination of whimsy and memoir.

So there you have it.  We’ve got Pride and Prejudice for the toddler set, now fairy tales for fashionistas.  I love the elasticity of story.

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The Child That Books Built

Francis Spufford

New York: Picador, 2003.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for ages.  I keep running across references to it in other books, and the title appeals so much to me.  It is like building, reading is.  Architectural metaphors are so apt.  We have building blocks in ABC books, we lay foundations, we build our libraries.  In Spufford’s case, though, reading helps to patch cracks in his foundation. 

Throughout this book, which is a combination of memoir and literary criticism, Spufford keeps returning to the fact that reading was, for him, so often about escape from a miserable home life.  His younger sister suffered from a rare kidney disease, his mother from the pain of bones that broke easily because of osteoporosis, and his parents seem to have shuffled along working hard to cope until his sister died in her early twenties.  Spufford coped by suppressing all emotion:

Whatever my life had been like before Bridget was born, it was over: cause for a sibling envy so big I didn’t dare show it, or even feel it much, in case it cracked the thinned skeleton of what was left (15).

Even at this distance, his memories of childhood have a palpable tension, and his fixation on the escapism into books borders on a kind of discomfort that often made me want to avert my eyes but for its beautiful clarity:

So when I read stories obsessively as a child I was striking a kind of deal that allowed me to turn away. Sometime in childhood I made a bargain that limited, so I thought, the power over me that real experience had, the real experience that comes to us in act and incident and through the proximate, continuous existence of those we love.  All right, I said, I’ll let a quantity of that stream over me, if I can have a balancing portion of this, the other kind of experience, which is controlled, and repeatable, and comes off the page. (16)

Books, to use another architectural metaphor, are shelter, and he becomes addicted to the protection they offer.  He seeks that escape even into young adulthood, when he turns to the comforts of genre fiction, of books that do your thinking for you, an uncomfortable admission to hear from a bookish boy.

That is not to say that Spufford is not a thinking man.  His chapters are organized around common literary tropes from children’s books–The Forest, The Island, The Town and The Hole–and they approach, respectively, the role of fairy tales, the appeal of fantasy, the comforts of fictional communities, and, finally, the appeal of science fiction and pornography to a young man who still wants the predictable comforts of the page.  Memoir and literary criticism are not always seamlessly blended, and the gears grind occasionally as he switches them, but the chapter on The Town is well worth the wait.  In it, he articulates the beautiful paradox that the community he found in fictional towns continued to insulate him from real people in the real world.

I have struggled with writing this post because so much of the book is melancholy, and the joys Spufford describes are, for him, the dubious and tainted joys of much-needed escape.  Reading is not like that for me.  It is not melancholy, and its joys are not tainted.  I’ve had to read through the pity the book arouses to the wonderful insights it offers about what books can offer.

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The month of Valentine’s Day should also include love for books, and I’m looking at some reading memoirs this month that explore the authors’ love.  Please make suggestions for other reads if you have any.

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Personal History by Roo Borson

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

Nothing Remains the Same by Wendy Lesser

Reading in Bed by Steven Gilbar

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks

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The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Alan Jacobs

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, though I certainly don’t need to be persuaded about the pleasures of reading.  I see it in my children, I feel it daily, and I am so increasingly addicted to the joy of reading that finding the next great read, for both myself and my kids, has become one of the engines that drives my days.  I would hazard a guess that most of you also feel a sense of superfluity when you read the title of the book.  We don’t need to be told about the pleasures of reading; we are readers; we already take pleasure in reading.  But what writing this blog about books about books has done for me is to enrich my love of reading, and my commitment to making more and more time for it, with stories of others’ love.  Time and time again I have found my own pleasures and thoughts so beautifully articulated by a complete stranger, and there is wonder in that. 

I was almost giddy with delight as I read Alan Jacobs’s story of his love of reading.   A professor of English at Wheaton College, and the author of a biography of C.S. Lewis and a book called Theology of Reading, about how to read lovingly and charitably, Jacobs is also a technophile.  RSS feeds, email and twitter began to swamp his days, and he’d find himself unable to read because of the constant urge to check his i-phone.  He realized one day that he was reading less than he did when he was 10.  And with less pleasure.  What I found most moving about this book is that Jacobs says that when he bought a Kindle (in order to avoid lugging a heavy pile of books on a trip) the Kindle saved his reading life, or, rather, it gave him back his deeply attentive reading life which had been frayed by the distractions of his technological tethers.  This is quite a confession coming from a professor of English.  He also recommends lying about the Great Books you have (not) read, and he thinks that there are too many undergraduate students of English.  So there are quite a few surprises in this English professor’s book about the pleasures of reading.

This is not one of those doom and gloom books about the demise of reading.  On the contrary, he begins by quoting research from the American National Endowment for the Arts that shows that “For the first time in over a quarter-century, … literary reading has risen among adult Americans.” And yet, we continue to wring our hands.  Jacobs quotes frequently from Nicholas Carr, whose The Shallows was a worrying about the effect of the internet on our ability to read well, but Jacobs points out that the so-called dumbing down of America could be a self-fulfilling prophesy:

I find myself particularly intrigued by younger people who have heard their cohort called “The Dumbest Generation,” who are continually told that their addiction to multiple simultaneous stimuli renders them incapable of the seriously focused and single-minded attention that the reading of big thick books requires.  Some of them are defiant in response to such charges, but most at least half-believe them.  Told over and over again that they can’t read, they begin to wonder why they should even try. (6) 

That is a sobering thought.  It’s such a common sensical observation, but it has stuck with me.  Of course there will be some kind of diminishing if you call a generation dumb.  We don’t call our individual children dumb, so why would we label their generation so negatively?  It has allowed me a moment of self-congratulation that I have not wrung my hands in sight of my boys and have, I hope, inculcated not just a love of reading, but a belief that they can tackle big books and enjoy them.

Jacobs’s main thesis is that reading is not hygiene; it should not be done out of duty or by rote.  Rather, he advocates that you follow Whim, and “Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame” (23).

He has a particular beef with books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which he calls the perfect guide for those who don’t want to read but who want to have read” (68).  I disagree entirely with his disdain for the book (I adore the children’s literature version), but the concept of wanting to have read instead of simply wanting to read, I found very persuasive.  “Yes!”, I scribbled in the margins (annotations being another of his pieces of advice for amplifying your pleasure of a book).  Yes!  There have been many times that I have picked up a book in order to be able to say that I have read it, not simply to enjoy the reading of it.  I also have great difficulty in abandoning a book that I am not enjoying.  Reading off of someone else’s list of greatest hits, he says, is a waste of good reading time.  Lie, he says:

Yes, lying is wrong.  But sometimes in this world we have to choose among evils.  It is wrong to lie, but it may be still more wrong to read a bunch of books you don’t want to read—and by “read” them I mean cast your eyes across most of the lines on most of the pages—in order to impress people whose opinion you shouldn’t be deferring to anyhow.  So it would be less bad, I think, to take a little time to figure out what people will be impressed to hear that you’re reading, use Wikipedia to find out just enough about those books to enable you to bluff plausibly when questioned—and then go back home and read whatever you want to read. (68)

I love his faith!  This is not a professor speaking to students (who should never, ever rely on Wikipedia!), it is a book lover speaking to other members of his tribe who may have lost the plot.  I love his faith that we can abandon obligation and simply follow Whim, that the joy of reading will give us not just guilty pleasure but abiding pleasures as well (17).

Where I begin to disagree with Jacobs is in his belief that

The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed.  (“I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes.  “Can I go back to my books now?”)  Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made.  They take care of themselves; they always do go back to their books. (107)

I am an extreme reader, but I was not born one.  I am mostly made, not born, and I owe that making to my degrees in English as well as to the learning I get from other readers, on-line and in print.  As gently as he can, Jacobs is saying that undergraduate departments cannot expect to continue to expand as they have in the 60 years since the GI Bill greatly increased university enrollment:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps 2 percent of Americans attended a university; now the number is closer to 70 percent (though only 30 percent get bachelor’s degrees).  … [It] has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” beyond what may be its natural limits. (107)

I get very uncomfortable with a notion that there are natural limits on the size of the reading class (a term, to be fair, that Jacobs dislikes himself, thus his use of quotation marks).  I owe much of my abiding pleasure of reading to the universities I attended.  I am not an autodidact who would have found that love without an institutional gateway. 

Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about—I scruple not to say it—skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content.  Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours. (114)

Though I do read very differently when I’m teaching a book and reading it for pleasure, I can’t make the same kind of distinction.  Learning and depths of pleasure are inseparable for me.  I needed one to reach the other, and I find them complementary.  And, yes, I know that this puts me in another class of rare bird, but it’s a class I would have been left out of if the access to undergraduate education was not so readily available.   

My copy of this book is a review copy, but I will be buying multiple copies to give as gifts to thoughtful book-lovers.  It really was a pleasure to read.

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The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie

Wendy McClure

New York: Riverhead, 2011.

(reviewed from a review copy)

This summer, after our annual two-day drive from Ontario to Nova Scotia, I climbed out of our mini-van and into a flu.  In the roof-top carrier of the mini-van was a banker’s box full of books I’d brought on holiday (because it’s just not a vacation unless you bring along enough reading material to last until the apocalypse), but on our first night at the cottage, we did not unpack that box, and I was left without bedtime reading material.  I went, instead, to the cottage’s shelves and found an old Dell paperback copy of The Little House on the Prairie.  Perfect.  In spite of my exhaustion, I read late into the night, and when I woke up feeling less than well the next morning, I put it down to the long drive and the short sleep.

Not long after, I was back in bed and there I would stay for a few days.  The banker’s box sat in the corner, untouched.  Not one of the books was suitable for flu reading, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was, and I made my way through two of the Little House books while shivering and sweating and coughing it out.  (Not to be too melodramatic here, but I could identify when the family all had malaria.)

As I read, I was paying as much attention to the books as I was to my response to them: attraction and repulsion.  Ma’s racism was something I had not remembered at all, and it disgusted me.  It’s always an odd sensation to revisit a book from childhood, but this was particularly jarring.  I found the narrator a tad cold, too.  But then there was the wonderful catalogue of things and deeds, of blessings and curses, of a world contained and enumerable.

How delightful, then, to read Wendy McClure’s book and find my ambivalence so precisely and humourously mirrored.  I am nowhere near the Little House fan McClure is, but her book is so well written, so amusing and richly textured, that she takes us along on her own (re)discovery of the world of the books without our having to match her level of devotion to them.

McClure, who is a children’s book editor and who tweets as HalfPintIngalls, begins by describing the appeal of the books:

Since I edit children’s books for a living, I get asked a lot about my favorite books as a kid.  When I tell people I loved the Little House books, I know it’s a perfectly respectable answer, the sort of thing folks expect me to say.  Then sometimes they go on and ask me whether I also loved various other Important Children’s Books, like Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Prince and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’ll do my best for a while, trying to play along, and then at some point I have to hem and haw and shrug because, well, you know what I really liked?  I liked books that had pictures of toast in them.

Well, not just toast, but, you know, cups and ladles and baskets and hats, lovingly rendered, all in their places in a room or even just in little vignettes, but at any rate, things, in all their thinginess.  (3-4)

I do know!  Things in all their thinginess is my thing too!

She re-reads the whole set of Little House books, researches the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and begins to plan trips to the creeks, sod houses and towns in which her fictionalized biographies are set.  She buys calico sun bonnets.  She buys a butter churn.  And makes butter with it.  Her boyfriend, bless him, puts horehound candy in her stocking.

I flipped through the pages of [The Little House Guidebook] and mentally subtitled it Everything You Wanted to Know About Driving Out to Remote Locations in the Upper Midwest to Find Your Childhood Imaginary Friend but Were Afraid to Ask.  And I was still afraid to ask: what kind of a person would I become if I just went with this, let my calico-sunbonnet freak flag fly? (26)

What happens when she lets her freak flag fly is a wonderful book, full of humour.  Equal parts memoir, biography, picaresque and cultural studies, McClure’s book attempts to reconcile her childhood love of the books with some of their darker undercurrents.

As part of her attempt to live “La Vida Laura,” McClure and her boyfriend go on a homesteading weekend, encouraged by the host’s mention of the Little House books on her website.   She is encouraged to bring her butter churn so that she can show the other participants how to churn butter.  The other participants turn out to be Christians preparing for the apocalypse.

I was keeping an open mind.  And I had gotten used to encountering people of a somewhat more evangelical bent in the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan world—plenty of homeschooling moms blogged about the Little House books, for example, and I’d noticed more than a couple fish symbols on the cars in the museum parking lot in Mansfield, Missouri.  They were all nice folks who shared my love of Laura but maybe not my support for legalizing gay marriage. …

From everything I’d read, End Timers were waiting for the collapse of the civilization the way fans of the Twilight series awaited the trailer for Breaking Dawn.  They were bracing themselves to endure the myriad destructive ordeals that would wipe out infidels, atheists, unrepentant sinners, industrialists, government officials, and Salon.com readers, with the expectation that they, the prepared ones, would be among the worthy few who would be raptured to Heaven….  (191, 194) 

This wonderfully humourous clashing of worlds is an opportunity for McClure to investigate the darker side to the homey nostalgia of the books:

I had been searching for Laura Ingalls Wilder and I’d gotten Hippie Half-Pint instead, half full of her crazy, crazy Kool-Aid made from foraged berries.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was making me uneasy.  Deep down, I was starting to wonder if the Little House books had more to do with this sort of worldview than I’d been willing to admit.  Not the end-of-the-world stuff, of course, but that “simple life” mind-set and all that it rejected.  … I thought about the moms who bragged online that their homeschooled kids were not only reading the Little House books but were learning from reprinted editions of the same McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers that Laura and Carrie used, as if all of twentieth-century pedagogy simply didn’t exist.  (196)

It is this layered approach that I most liked about McClure’s book.  Memoir and biography, nostalgia and honest examinations of the racism in the book, humour and skepticism about the commercialization of Laura world.

On the banks of the real Plum Creek, McClure has a moment of clarity:

I was going to wade in the creek.  Others were doing it—both adults and kids were seeking out clear spots along the bank where it was easy to step into the water.  I found a place where the dirt was smooth from the feet of other visitors.  I took off my flip-flops and stepped awkwardly down the slope of the bank.  The water felt nice.  A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described.  Or it was just like each step I’d taken in the creek at the campground where my family spent weekends when I was a kid.  I don’t know which had come first, my own experience or the book, but either way, that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I know the book was true. (232)

I love this passage.  The visceral layering of here and there, now and then, experience lived and experience read; the sudden awareness of truth.  Isn’t that what the complexity and clarity of re-reading old loves is all about?

This book was a joy to read, and I recommend it highly, not just for fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for any book lover who loves a good read.

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I like to think that I’m no bookworm, egghead, four-eyed paleface library rat. I often engage in activities that have no reference to the printed words. I realize that books are not the entire world, even if they sometimes seem to contain it. But I need the stupid things.

from Luc Sante’s delightful essay “The Book Collection that Devoured Me” in the WSJ

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Book Ends: A Year Between the Covers

Naomi Beth Wakan

Hamilton: Poplar Press, 2010

Read from a review copy.


This book is deceptively simple.  Organized in 12 chapters named for each of the twelve months that the book covers, Wakan’s book strolls through a year of reading, but also of gardening, hosting, teaching, running errands,  and minding the world.  Her narrative pace is slow and her essays meander, but they belie a breakneck reading pace.  I don’t know how the library on Gabriola Island keeps her stocked because she and her husband go through 20 books a week.  The island, its library and her book box, the old milk crate in which she keeps her books to be read, become characters in their own right, and the books she reads are always firmly tethered to the context in which she reads them.  These are familiar essays, and while the pace of the individual chapters may be easy, Wakan, in her late seventies, has more than 30 books of poetry and non-fiction to her credit.  She reads and writes at a fantastic pace, but none of that urgency appears here.  On the pages of this book, she is relaxed company.

What I like best about Wakan’s book is that she knows that there are more prolific writers, more voracious and up-to-date readers out there, and, after acknowledging that there are other ways of being, she is unapologetic about the kind of writer and reader that she is. 

I have been reading a book entitled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (general editor–Peter Boxall) and, of course, it filled me with guilt and remorse.  What have I been doing with my life that I have probably not read more than one third of the books included? …  Reading [it] left me with the feeling that I would like to have written a novel. … But that is not to be, for here I am, yet once more, turning out yet one more little essay about books and writers and, do you know, having recovered from reading the summaries of one thousand and one books by triumphant (and often alcoholic and suicidal) authors, I am quite content to have my life running this way.

I was pleasantly surprised by how many books about books she discusses.  My beloved Ex Libris  and 84 Charing Cross Road are among more than 30 books about books and author biographies and autobiographies.  It’s a veritable goldmine of bibliophilic reading.  I had seen the title of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and dismissed it as flippant, but she calls it the best book of her reading year.  I’m sold.  I am doing a reading challenge based on 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, the 1% well-read challenge, so Wakan’s book also had the added bonus of being a book about my reading challenges. 

Wakan gently points me to the truth that not all the books we bring home have to be fiction or bibliophilic.  She reads books about math and makes them sound compelling.  This is not an easy thing to do.  Lots of books about gardening, too, as she and her husband attempt a zero-mile diet by growing almost all of their own food.  Also not an easy thing to do. 

As you will have noticed from my April entries, I often prefer reading about gardening to actually doing it, so while making my garden to-do list, I began to once more think about garden writing and folks who do it.

Michael Pollan points out so nicely that writing and gardening are both ways of rendering the world in rows.

I’ve just wandered home from the bookstore with Merilyn Simond’s A New Leaf: Growing with My Garden tucked under my arm and am looking forward to its rows on rows.

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Kerry at Pickle Me This kindly asked me for a guest appearance in her Wild Libraries I Have Known Series.  It’s up today.


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reading for girls

I loved this article by Samantha Ellis in The Observer about how her female role models from her favourite books may have led her astray.  A piece to file alongside The Heroine’s Bookshelf and Reading Women.  Coming Soon:  An Uncommon Heroine: Scarlett, Edna, Sula and More Than 20 Other of the Most Remarkable Women in Literature by Jamie Cox Robertson.

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