The Sunday Salon: Reading ‘The Heroine’s Bookshelf’

by Kim on April 24, 2011 · 21 comments

The Sunday Salon.com I’ve been in some sort of funk the last couple of weeks. I mostly blame it on the weather — we had a few nice days, and then Mother Nature decided to smack everyone in the face with a sleeting/raining/snow storm on April 19 that caused my car to get stuck. In April! I was not at all pleased. But even with that, it’s just been an out-of-sorts week or two, so earlier this week I was looking for a book to pull me out of the funk.

I had a lot of options, but I ended up grabbing a copy of Erin Blakemore’s The Heroine’s Bookshelf, which I’ve had on my shelves for awhile now. A book about literary heroines seemed like the kind of book that could potentially cheer me up.

In The Heroine’s Bookshelf, Blakemore takes a look at some of the most well-loved female protagonists in literature as well as the authors who created them to explore some of the qualities we associate with today’s heroines:

  • Self – Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Faith – Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Happiness – Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • Dignity – Celie in The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Family Ties — Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  • Indulgence – Claudine in Colette’s Claudine novels
  • Fight – Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Compassion — Scout Finsh in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Simplicity — Laura Ingalls in The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Steadfastness – Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Ambition — Jo March in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Magic – Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I’m not sure the book pulled me out my my funk, but it was a comforting read in that it reminded me of why I turn to books in times when the world seems off-kilter. As Blakemore writes in the introduction,

Call me a coward if you will, but when the line between duty and sanity blurs, you can usually fine me curled up with a battered book, reading as if my mental health depended on it. And it does, for inside the books I love I find food, respite, escape, and perspective. …

I’m here to posit that it’s exactly in these moments of struggle and stress that we need books the most. There’s something in the pause to read that’s soothing in and of itself. A moment with a book is basic self-care, the kind of skill you pass along to your children as you would a security blanket or a churchgoing habit.

My favorite chapters were, I think predictably, the ones for books I was already familiar with. I liked reading Blakemore’s interpretation of books I already knew, re-framing the characters and the author with a particular virtue I may not have thought about on my first reading. I hadn’t necessarily thought about Scout Finch as an example of compassion, or even Jane Eyre as a model of steadfastness, even though it’s clear how important those virtues are.

But honestly, the book made me more curious to read biographies of the authors Blakemore wrote about than it did to read (or reread) the books she was writing about. I loved the connections she drew between the biographies of the authors and the characters they wrote about. While it’s always a tricky proposition to force an author’s biography or personality onto a fictional character, I thought Blakemore’s interpretations were pretty convincing, and interesting enough that I wanted to learn more myself.

One of the things on my Day Zero Project list is to read a “book on books” and then read five of the books mentioned it. I decided to make two lists of books to choose from — one of the fiction I want to read or reread from the books, and another of nonfiction — biographies, literary criticism, whatever — about the books and authors in The Heroine’s Bookshelf. Here’s what I have so far, with the contents subject to change at my choosing:

Fiction

Nonfiction

I’m just going to end with another one of my favorite quotes from the book, which I couldn’t find a place to include in the review anywhere but thought was a beautiful sentiment:

As adults in a grown-up world, we can choose to see what is in front of us or what could be all around us. We can ask what our favorite author would do, what would make the little girls we once were prouder, bigger, better. … Bolstered by the stories and the strengths of women real and fictitious, we can being a child’s eyes to the sight of the impossible. We can expect to see magic. Heroines and women all, we just might make some of our own.

Rating: ★★★½☆

P.S. If you’re curious about how my Day Zero project is going, you can read about how I wrote a letter to myself, went to a symphony, attended a wine tasting, made risotto and quiche, and completed the Read-a-Thon.  I’m at 6/101 completed and another eight in progress — so far, so good!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole April 24, 2011 at 8:43 am

I like this project you are working on. I felt similarly that Erin was able to make the connection between what drove the writers to shape the heroines as they did. It left me wanting to know more about the authors and surprised by some of the tidbits that she did share.

Mockingbird looks like it will be really good. I had started in on it when I originally got it but had to put it aside for another commitment and never got back to it. Remind me when you stat to read it!

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Kim April 25, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Nicole: I almost picked up Mockingbird at a used bookstore I was at over the weekend, but decided to grab it from the library instead. Harper Lee really fascinates me, ever since I read a fictional book about her and Truman Capote last year… I can’t remember the name now, but it was good!

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bermudaonion (Kathy) April 24, 2011 at 9:47 am

We got some cooler weather last week too and I wasn’t too happy either. I hope you get out of your funk soon.

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Kim April 25, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Kathy: Thanks, me too! The weather has perked up this week and I’m feeling a lot less grumpy :)

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Laura April 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm

We had a recent bout of cold weather a couple of weeks ago that I really wasn’t happy about. Then I realized that the snow would melt quickly and it was kind of beautiful. I just hope we don’t get another.

This book looks wonderful and it sounds like a fun project to reread some of those great novels.

Here is my Sunday Salon post

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Kim April 25, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Laura: The snow did go away quickly and we were left with some beautiful green grass, so I guess it wasn’t that horrible. Just horrible at the time! I’m looking forward to picking up the books again — I have to go see which ones I still have stored at my parents’ house.

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Steph April 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Good on you for tackling risotto! I know it’s not hard, but it seems so finicky whenever I make it… I wind up having to stir it for ages and am always worried that the moisture is reducing too fast or too slow. That said, I’ve never had any complaints with the finished product, so I guess that’s all that counts!

I’ve been reading some good books lately, but I have been struggling to blog. I think this has to do with me having left so many of my read books unreviewed so they’re not as fresh in my mind and harder to speak passionately about. Must be better about not letting reviews slide!

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Kim April 25, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Steph: The recipe I used actually had me bake the risotto, which took away most of the anxious stirring (thank goodness!). I have another recipe to try that on the stove top, so we’ll how that goes.

I’ve been feeling a little off blogging lately as well. I’m not sure what it is, probably the seasons changing or something :) I’m more caught up on reviews than I was last year, which is nice though!

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Care April 25, 2011 at 7:20 am

Funny, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also the only book of that list I have yet to read! I did recently finish A Secret Garden and am mad that I didn’t immediately write the review. I’m struggling with it.

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Kim April 25, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Care: I read A Secret Garden when I was pretty young and haven’t read it since — I’m going to go look for your review now :)

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Jen - Devourer of Books April 25, 2011 at 11:53 am

I really loved THE HEROINE’S BOOKSHELF. I totally agree with you, re: the connections between the authors and their heroines. I thought it was done well, that she made smart connections but didn’t push them too much.

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Kim April 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Jen: When I took a literary theory class, we talked a lot about the limits of the psychological approach — tying authors and their characters too closely together. I felt like Blakemore did a good job not stretching it too much, and admitting when the connections weren’t quite there (Louisa May Alcott and Jo come to mind).

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Lyndsey April 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Hey Kim – biographies of women writers are so my thing, so I’m looking forward to seeing what you think! I keep meaning to read one about Margaret Mitchell – what a gal. The Woman Behind Little Women was brilliant. Last year I read ‘Lives Like Loaded Guns’ about Emily Dickinson and her legacy – I’d definitely recommend that too.

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Kim April 25, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Thanks Lyndsey! I didn’t know much about The Woman Behind Little Women, so I’m glad to hear it’s good. And I’ve heard so much enthusiasm about the Margaret Mitchell book — I’m excited about it.

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Suzanne April 26, 2011 at 8:04 am

I’m in a bit of a funk myself, I think The Heroine’s Bookshelf sounds like a nice book to curl up with and at least escape for a little while.

Thanks for reviewing it.

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Kim April 28, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Suzanne: It was nice to revisit books from my childhood in this way — cozy, but also a little think-y. I liked it.

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Erin May 1, 2011 at 8:49 am

I’m glad your project is going well! I think The Heroine’s Bookshelf sounds like a great book to make your list from — so many options! I have a copy of The Heroine’s Bookshelf awaiting me as well. I’ve been avoiding it because I know reading it will make me want to read all the books mentioned in it…and now I find out possibly biographies of all the authors, too! :-)

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Kim May 3, 2011 at 9:23 am

Erin: Yeah, part of what I liked about picking this book was that there are so many different kinds of books to choose from. And yes, the book will make you want to read so much! So many books, so little time.

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Jillian June 17, 2011 at 10:59 am

That Louisa May Alcott biography is EXCELLENT. :-)

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Kim June 18, 2011 at 8:19 am

Great to know — I’m looking forward to reading it soonish :)

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