How to be a Heroine (or What I Learned from Reading Too Much) by Samantha Ellis

I was smitten as soon as I saw the title, but when I saw the cover ….. Well, a pile of books is always a good thing and this one was close to perfect. Eight books, and I could tell you about each one, and of memories that each one held for me.

20521177But this is Samantha Ellis’s story, filtered through the stories of the heroines she met in the books she read, and her musings on how they left their mark on her when they first met and when they met again as this book took shape.

I learned that she was a playwright, the child of a family that had come together from Jewish and Iraqi background, a young woman who had not quite followed the path set out for her and had taken some time to find her own. She told that story with with, with just the right balance of self-awareness and self-deprecation, but really it was the books that were the thing.

I met a woman and though we didn’t have too much on common we bonded over books. We agreed about many – though not all – of them, she made me see a few books and a few of their heroines in a different light, and I wondered if I might have done the same if I could have only spoken back to this book. Oh the dialogue we might have had!

This is a long way from literary criticism. It’s talking about books to other readers, those readers who respond emotionally to book, form relationships with character, want to go and live in different worlds, and want other people to understand that. It’s conversational, it’s passionate, it’s funny, and it has a great line in one-liners.

“I can’t quite believe that I was so keen on a story about a mermaid who gives up her voice for legs to get a man.”

That was ‘The Little Mermaid’ and after that we moved swiftly on to Jo March and Anne Shirley; love for the heroines but rather less for some of the worlds they were placed in and the paths they were sent along helped me to clarify why I wasn’t as drawn to re-read certain childhood favourites as much as I thought I should be.

and when it came to the latter I think that maybe we did.  far more than I can mention here. But I must mention some.

Lolly Willowes!

Jane Eyre!

Mildred Lathbury!

Anna Karenina!

Lucy Honeychurch!

So many wonderful books and so may lovely heroines, to remember, to re-consider, and maybe to pull off the shelf to re-read.

Chapters about Franny and Zooey and The Bell Jar nearly lost me, because they were books that didn’t speak to me, but I was pulled back by books that may not be great literature but do have something to say – Lace and the Valley of the Dolls! Swiftly followed by Flora Poste and Scherezade. That was where the book started to feel a tiny bit forced, as if the ‘right books’ rather than the ‘favourite books’ were coming off the shelf.

And so this isn’t the perfect book about books – there were times before that when I couldn’t help feeling that two much meaning was being squeezed from certain heroine or a certain book.

But ‘How to be a Heroine’ is a very human book, and I loved it for that. It was a book to have a dialogue with, a book that made me appreciate books it talked about, and a book that made me think about other books that I might have included. And a book to love for its hear, its soul, and its bookishness.


Reviewing the Situation

I have a bad habit of picking up books, starting them, and then being distracted by something else. It generally works well; I have several books in progress and I pick the right one for the moment. But sometimes it gets too much and I have to stop and take stock to see where I’m going.

This is one of those times.

2014-01-22_20-18-01_70Starting from the bottom:

I bought a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell when it was a brand new hardback, and I’ve started reading a few times and drifted away. But a read-along came along at just the right time – and at just the right pace – and I’ve read more than ever before, I have the momentum to see me through to the end. it’s love.

I planned to read The Goldfinch over Christmas, but I was later than I planned finishing my Century of Books, and then other books started calling me. I loved the opening chapters, but then it seemed to wobble a bit, and the adolescent years seem interminable. I want to see it through and I will get back to it. I think …..

I loved How To Be A Heroine: Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much as soon as I saw that title and I placed an order as soon as it appeared it library stock. It’s as wonderful as I hoped, and I’m not going to want to give it back to the library but I’ve been reading at lot of my own books and I really need to make some space on my ticket.

I picked up Red Pottage because it’s on my Classics Club list, because it worked for my 100 Years of Books, and because I’ve spotted others with great taste on books loving it. I followed a trail from Lisa to Hayley to Simon. I loved the first few chapters, but I’ve put it on hold until I’ve caught up with one or two other books.

I pulled The Beth Book off the Virago bookcase for the same reasons, and I didn’t mean to pick it up yet but I loved the first chapter and I had to carry on.

I’m reading The Game of Kings with a group – one of the Lymond novels every two month, so we’ll have read the series by the end of the year. So many people love Dorothy Dunnett, and I’m beginning to see why, but I’m not entirely smitten yet. Time will tell …..

And I’m reading Clarissa in real time. I started a couple of years ago but I fell off the read-along. It was the year my mother was ill and moved into a nursing home, and I didn’t have electronic means then and it just wasn’t practical to carry such a big book around with me. But now I do and so I’m trying again, with a Twitter read-along.

And that’s it.

Everything else has gone back on the shelf, to be started again one day in the not too distant future.

My plan I to keep reading the big books at a steady rate, and to read the smaller books along the way.

I’ll finish the second volume of Strange & Norrell tonight, and I’m going to be ‘Doing Dunnett’ at the weekend.

Then I’ll see where I am. And pick up one or two other books.

Sometimes I wish I was the kind of person who picked up one book at a time, to read from cover to cover before picking up another, but I’m not. I do like my system, I just have to bring it under control.

What works for you?

What are you reading? What are your plans?