Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Book Review: The Heroine's Bookshelf

The Heroine's Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Erin Blakemore

Memoirs of reading comprise one of my favorite genres - apparently if there's anything I like even more than reading, it's reading about other people reading. (Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time is my favorite, but I'm always looking for more - hit up the comments if you have one to recommend!) And I especially like them when I've been in a reading slump, as I have been lately, because even when reading memoirs aren't great, they always make me want to read. (I think part of getting out of this slump is going to involve posting more reviews here, so you've been warned.)

And this one is . . . not great, honestly. This is a book of essays about twelve literary heroines and their authors, focused around a specific virtue to be learned from each one. It was a quick, accessible read - I read almost all of it on the subway too and from my brother's new apartment this weekend. I definitely liked learning about some of the authors I didn't know much about, but I tended to get frustrated with the sections about the authors I have studied - and to some extent, I know, this will happen with any "entry level" work about a subject you know. Things are simplified or elided, and there were plenty of times when I disagreed with Blakemore's interpretations of the novels or some of her sweeping statements about the authors' lives or intentions. I think it would have been a stronger work had she been less concerned with fitting each heroine to a specific theme.

But at the same time, I really enjoy the idea of life lessons from books and authors - not so much the superficial ones like "Laura Ingalls Wilder teaches us to make do with little," though of course that's true enough, but the idea that we use books to figure out how to construct our lives. (If I ever write a reading memoir - yes, I've been thinking about one, I know you're shocked - that will probably be the focus.) So I enjoyed the sections in which Blackmore discussed the way the heroines' stories informed and were informed by their authors' lives and the events and culture of their times.

I've read nine of the twelve heroines Blackmore discusses, though To Kill a Mockingbird and Their Eyes Were Watching God were long enough ago that I should give them another look. She made me curious about the other three - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Color Purple, and Colette's Claudine books - and even more curious to read some decent biographies of all the authors. And in general, the book made me want to just read, so it served its purpose.

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