Posts Tagged ‘Erin Blakemore’

Books about My 2011 Reading Challenges II

The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, From Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder

Erin Blakemore

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2010.

Oh, dear.  I am not at all the right reader for this book.  No, not at all.  This is a particular blow because I agree in principle with much of what Blakemore says, but I am so disappointed that this passionate book lover is not speaking to me.  We are not a good match, this book and I.  The tone is all wrong, though I might agree with the substance of what she says. 

Blakemore’s book is divided into 12 chapters, each giving a biographical sketch of an author and a summary of the plot for her protagonist.  Each chapter is focussed on a theme like ambition or simplicity, and each ends with a suggestion of how to match what ails you to the book balm.  For example, the chapter on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ends with the suggestion that you read this book

  • When your mom complains that you’ll never give her grandchildren
  • When your inner people-pleaser threatens to drown out your gut instinct
  • As an antidote to deathly seriousness (17)

Well, accuse me of deathly seriousness if you will, but a list like this shuts down much of the magnificence of these books.  I also bristle at the idea of my favourite books as self-help guides, because I don’t sit down with Pride and Prejudice for a “life lesson.”

“Heroine” designates both author and protagonist, and Blakemore does make a convincing case for why these authors and their creations are the timeless touchstones that they are.  My favourite aspect of the book was the biographical sketch of the author in each chapter.  Blakemore gives an efficient and concise summary of the writers’ personal and professional lives, without ever being reductive about biographical readings of the fiction, and I was grateful for the overviews.  The twelve chapters discuss 

  • Jane Austen and Lizzy Bennet
  • Zora Neale Hurston and Janie Crawford
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne Shirley
  • Alice Walker and Celie
  • Betty Smith and Francie Nolan
  • Colette and Claudine
  • Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara
  • Harper Lee and Scout Finch
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder and Laura Ingalls
  • Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre
  • Louisa May Alcott and Jo March, and
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett and Mary Lennox. 

Each chapter also ends with a list of three of the protagonists’ “literary sisters,” for further reading.  Since I have read and re-read all twelve books, it was for the literary sisters that I took up the Heroine’s Bookshelf Challenge.

The book gets off to the most awkward start, though, with an introduction that seems to be addressed to people who don’t read, which is odd, because, well, this is a book.  Not only people who don’t read, but who actively argue that there are better things to do and it’s a waste of time to read. 

Writing a book about reading at a time when the practical is the popular has been a rare challenge.  Surely there’s always something better to do than revisit women who’ve been dead for centuries. (xix)

Well, yes, but choosing to read in spite of life’s other pressures is precisely what makes us book lovers, isn’t it?  Blakemore makes exactly that point, but I do wish she had taken a different tone.  Why be pre-emptively defensive?

In times of struggle, there are as many reasons not to read as there are to breathe.  Don’t you have better things to do?  Reading, let alone rereading, is the terrain of milquetoasts and mopey spinsters.  At life’s ugliest junctures, the very act of opening a book can smack of cowardly escapism.  Who chooses to read when there’s work to be done? (xi)

Again, I scratch my head in wonder.  If those who hold this opinion aren’t reading other books, they likely aren’t reading this one, so why address them and their arguments?  Here is a book about the timelessness of books, and it is mired in its own time: mid-recession, belt-tightening, grouchy-about-frills-like-reading time.  I wish she had dispensed with all of the pre-emptive defense about why books matter and just gotten on with the job of extolling the heroines. 

With her choice of twelve heroines I have no quibbles at all.  These books have given me many hours of comfort and joy, and I was pleased to have been reminded of old friends.

Immediately after putting this book down, I picked up one of the literary sisters.  I’ve had Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle on my TBR pile for ages, and Cassandra Mortmain is named as one of Jane Eyre’s literary sisters in steadfastness.  I devoured the book, gorging on its delightful wit and whimsy.  For giving me the nudge to read I Capture the Castle I am profoundly grateful.  Dodie Smith and I, we are a good fit.

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